Thursday, May 29, 2008

England and Belgium Trip Report, part III.

From 2000-2002 my husband's twin brother, Charles, and his family lived as expats in Windsor, England. We visited them each year during Spring Break. The first two years we left the girls at home and took Will with us. The third year Dorothy Anna (Dots) joined us as well. At the time she was 4 and Will was 10. What follows is taken from the texts of emails I sent home while we were there.

Wednesday, 13 March

Robert woke up early and ran twice around Hyde Park (in the rain).  The rest of us slept in until 8:30 or so and then dressed and caught a taxi to Waterloo Station to board the Eurostar train to Brussels (we stopped at wonderful little bakery around the corner from the hotel and bought some pastries for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch).  Our train left promptly at 10:30 and was not crowded, so we were all able to spread out and relax a bit (Will and I even napped). 

My college roommate Margaret and two of her children were waiting for us after we cleared customs, and we loaded up in her diesel van and drove to their house.  Margaret and her family have been living as expats in Brussels just over a year.  She knows her way around well but also has a GPS system in her car which she claims is the best investment she's ever made.  Their house is in a beautiful neighborhood about 10 minutes from the center of Brussels and 5 minutes from her children's international school; they have a nice park directly across the street from their house.  Their house is lovely, quite roomy and modern and spread out over 7 split levels, with a beautiful garden out back.

In the afternoon she took us on a driving tour of their neighborhood and school, and after serving us a great meal of chicken enchiladas, salad, chips and hot sauce that evening, she drove us to the Grand Place for Belgian waffles.  The Grand Place is a beautiful old plaza with winding streets and many shops and restaurants.  We enjoyed walking around there, even in the rain.

Thursday, 14 March

Margaret's children had a school holiday and her husband Marc took a day off of work, so all of us piled into Margaret's van and drove to the nearest Metro station (Demey). 

We rode the Metro to Bruxelles Central station where we caught a train to Bruges. 

After an hour on the train, we arrived in Bruges, and (surprise) it was cold and rainy.  Despite the weather, Bruges was a charming, picturesque little town, with old buildings, narrow winding streets and pretty canals and bridges. 

We meandered the streets for a bit, stopping in shops selling lace, tapestries and chocolate (Belgian specialties). 

We visited a church where a Michelangelo mother and child is displayed.  The sculpture was beautiful, one of few such pieces by Michelangelo outside of Italy, and in a serene setting, much like Michelangelo would have envisioned when the piece was commissioned, I imagine. 

We ate lunch in a restaurant called Cafe Michelangelo just across the street from the church.  Dorothy Anna has been quite the good little traveler, but I think several late nights had caught up with her because when her lunch arrived, she began to cry and exclaimed, "But I just wanted an ordinary grilled cheese!"  The rest of us enjoyed our meals of hot soup, croques monsieur (delicious grilled ham and cheese sandwiches) and pommes frites (French fries - a Belgian invention). 

After lunch we wandered the streets a bit more before succumbing to the allure of hot Belgian waffles and an escape from the cold and damp. 

We took a (warm) bus back to the train station and arrived back at the house around 6:30.

Margaret had booked a sitter for the evening. Marc called Domino's and ordered pizza (in French) for the children's dinner.  The adults returned to the Grand Place for a wonderful meal of mussels and pommes frites at Chez Leon, touted as the most famous restaurant in Brussels.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

England and Belgium Trip Report, part II.

From 2000-2002 my husband's twin brother, Charles, and his family lived as expats in Windsor, England. We visited them each year during Spring Break. The first two years we left the girls at home and took Will with us. The third year Dorothy Anna (Dots) joined us as well. At the time she was 4 and Will was 10. What follows is taken from the texts of emails I sent home while we were there.

Monday, 11 March

I accompanied Patti as she drove the boys to school first thing this morning. Their campus (American Community School - Egham) is so beautiful, and I enjoyed seeing it again. The male teacher getting the children out of the car for carpool opened my door and queried with a smile, "Grade 12?" I love this British humor.

We returned home and retrieved Will, Dots and Robert and drove to the train station at Slough. We caught a train to Bath (changing trains in Reading), arriving there around 11:30.

Bath is a beautiful town, set in the hills, with all the buildings constructed of a creamy yellow stone, quarried nearby.

We first toured the ancient Roman baths, which date back to the 1st century A.D. -- quite fascinating.

We ate lunch at Sally Lunn's, where the famous sweet buns originated. The buns were a huge hit with the children; I had to reorder them twice.

Following lunch we took a Guide Friday bus tour of the city.

The Georgian architecture really appealed to me, and I especially liked the Circus and Royal Crescent (Georgian houses built in a circle and half-moon).

Robert and Dots decided to tour the Museum of Costume, while Will and I went to the Jane Austen Centre (guess whose choice that was). I loved learning more about Jane Austen and seeing where two of her novels (
Persuasion and Northanger Abbey) were set.

Leaving there Will saw a rugby shop. I stopped and bought him a rugby ball as a reward for being such a good sport in indulging my Jane Austen passion so agreeably.

We met back up with Robert and Dorothy, who had enjoyed themselves on their outing, and took a direct train back to Slough at 4:30. Patti and the boys were waiting for us at the station.

Tuesday, 12 March

Tonight we will stay in London before taking a train to Brussels tomorrow.

This morning we took the train from Slough to Paddington Station (caught a nonstop train and were in London in less than 25 minutes).

We bought Travel Cards which entitled us to unlimited tube and bus travel that day so we decided to take the tube to the Knightsbridge station near our hotel. I had downloaded a London Metro program to my Palm Pilot, and a quick type-in of where we were and where we wanted to go showed that we needed merely to tube over 4 stations, change to the Piccadilly line and tube over 1 more station. Sounds a lot easier than it is when you're schlepping around luggage, backpacks and two children. We definitely should have splurged for a taxi in this instance, if only so that when we arrived at the Knightsbridge tube stop we would have avoided walking several blocks in the wrong direction, in the rain, before finding our hotel (we needed a compass as London has very few buildings marked with street addresses).

After we found the Knightsbridge Green Hotel (which was remarkably close to the tube station had one taken a direct path), we checked in and settled into our room. We had a lovely suite with a large marble bathroom and a separate living area with a sofa bed where the children slept.

We left the hotel and caught the #9 double decker bus to Kensington Palace where we had a wonderful lunch at the Orangery.

We walked around Hyde Park (the rain had ceased), stopping at the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground for the children to play. This is a wonderful, brand new playground, developed using a Peter Pan theme (the original playground there was built with money donated by J.M. Barrie who wrote
Peter Pan), with a large pirate ship, teepees, a climbing tree and an stone alligator lurking in a sand pit.

The children left the park reluctantly and only on the promise of a visit to Hamley's Toy Store on Regent Street. We journeyed to Hamley's, stopping briefly in Leicester Square to pick up our theatre tickets. Will and Dorothy Anna were in heaven in Hamley's, which is six stories of toys and noise.

After each had chosen one toy (which took quite a while), we walked to the National Gallery, where we took a quick look-see at the Vermeers (for me) and Van Goghs (for Will) in its permanent collection.

We caught a bus back to our hotel where Robert and the children relaxed for a bit while I ran to Harrod's (in the rain). A friend had asked me to pick up some pajamas at Harrod's for her son, so I went directly to the 4th floor to the Children's Departments. The upper floors at Harrod's are quite nice, not as crowded and noisy as the ground floor. On the way to the pajama department, I passed the girls' area and found beautiful Easter dresses for Vivian and Dorothy. I then located the sought-after pajamas (also bought a pair of them for Will) and then headed out to meet Robert, Will and Dorothy Anna for an early dinner at Wagamama's.

Last year Wagamama's Noodle Shop was Will's favorite restaurant in London, and he had requested a return visit. We had another great meal; Dots, the Queen of Picky Eaters, wouldn't eat any noodles, but amazingly consumed an entire order of edamame (Japanese soybeans). Wonders never cease.

We took a taxi to the Lyceum Theatre in the West End to see
The Lion King. We had great seats on the fourth row. This was a wonderful show, and the children absolutely loved it. The costumes were especially inspired and held their attention well. The kids were impressed that the ushers served ice cream to you in your seat during intermission! After the show we bought the requisite Lion King souvenirs and returned to our hotel around 11:00. I didn't have to tell anyone it was time to go to bed.

Friday, May 23, 2008

England and Belgium Trip Report, part I.

From 2000-2002 my husband's twin brother, Charles, and his family lived as expats in Windsor, England. We visited them each year during Spring Break. The first two years we left the girls at home and took Will with us. The third year Dorothy Anna (Dots) joined us as well. At the time she was 4 and Will was 10. What follows is taken from the texts of emails I sent home while we were there.

Saturday, 9 March 2002

We had a safe, uneventful journey to England. Our final two upgrades to Business Class came through at the last minute, but our seats weren't all together, so Robert sat with Will.

Dorothy Anna and I sat together several rows back. Dots loved the little TV at her seat as well as how far the seat reclined and the unlimited drink service - don't think she'll be content in 'last class' ever again. I took an Ambien and actually slept for 3 hours - a first for me on a plane.

Charles was waiting for us when we cleared customs. We drove with him to their house in Windsor. The weather was beautiful, cool and windy with unexpectedly blue skies. The daffodils and crocuses are in full bloom, and the spring trees are beginning to bud; Charles and Patti's garden is predictably lovely and inviting. I unpacked, distributed gifts to the children and Patti and then took a short (less than two hour) nap.

At noon Patti and I dropped Robert and Charles and the children in Windsor to get Will's haircut and to wander around a bit. She and I headed to Hungerford to go antique shopping. Hungerford is a pretty little village 30 minutes or so west of here. There's a small stream running through the town that is home to many ducks, and several picturesque bridges cross the High Street. We had tea and sandwiches in a tiny shop at the top of an antiques arcade, and then we browsed through the shops. Patti found a beautiful large chest with a marble top, which we were able to load into the back of her Volvo estate wagon. Amazingly I refrained from buying anything (another first).

After dropping the chest off at the house (good thing
America's Funniest Home Videos wasn't around to catch us unloading that -- she and I have no future in the moving business), we met everyone at Pizza Express in town. The others had had a good time as well. They had wandered about Eton and Windsor -- saw lots of Eton boys in their morning coats (even on a Saturday) and played at several playgrounds and in a maze in Windsor. The Queen is in residence at the castle, as her royal standard is flying. Dots expects an invitation from her to be forthcoming shortly.

Will fell asleep at the table while eating pizza, so we made a quick dinner of it and headed home. Robert and Charles stayed in town to have a pint or two at a pub. The children and I were in bed by 8:00 and slept well.

Sunday, 10 March

Patti took Dots, Owen and Hollis into London today to see "Bob the Builder Live" at the London Arena. They ate lunch at Chili's and had a great time -- bought lots of Bob the Builder souvenirs; I guess commercial marketing isn't limited to the US.

Charles drove Robert, Will and me to Salisbury. We arrived around 11:30. A service was just beginning at the Salisbury Cathedral. The cathedral is quite large and impressive, and we enjoyed looking at the models, which showed how it was built (back in the 14th century).

We watched a choir of boys process in (they looked to be about 12 or 13 years old); they wore heavy green robes with stiff lace collars -- Will was not ready to enlist! After the service I asked one of the boys if I could take his picture. He puffed up his chest and posed quite proudly.

Housed at the Cathedral is the most intact and legible of the four remaining copies of the Magna Carta. It is encased inauspiciously in a side room where parishioners were milling after the service, seemingly unaware of the significant historical document in their midst.

We departed Salisbury and drove to Stonehenge. Will had requested a visit there as there is a full-scale replica near his camp in the Texas Hill Country. Stonehenge is awesome up close, but we took a rather abbreviated tour. It was quite cold, and the wind was blowing fiercely; I'm not sure when I have been so chilled. Charles joked that the actual intent of Stonehenge's constructors was to build a shield from the wind.