I did not really know what to expect from Belgium as everyone we have talked to has asked ‘why are you going there?’ Well I must say that I was very pleasantly surprised. We flew in to Brussels for a couple of days staying with my cousin Alana and her husband Nat who are working for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It was such a treat to actually be picked up from the airport for once and not have to catch a train or bus and then scour the town for our accommodation. Although there is not a great abundance of things to see in Brussels, what is there is great. The city actually has such a relaxed feel about it that you don’t really feel like dong much but kicking back in a pub and enjoying some of the fantastic food and beer. So we did a bit of that. Imelda actually thinks that Belgium is her spiritual home, with the abundance of waffles, chocolate, beer and fries.
Many of the beers in Belgium are Abbey beers, originally brewed by the monks in the abbeys around the country. On our second day we all piled into the car and headed out on a bit of a tour that ended at the Orval abbey. After a bit of a look round the ancient ruins, as well as where the Monks still live, we headed to the pub down the road to sample their brew. Not bad I must say.
We have got a couple of spare days, as such, before we are heading back to France to catch some of the Tour de France, so we have decided to head up and see what Holland is all about.
Canals, clogs, tulips, windmills, crooked houses, “coffee shops” and prostitutes in shop windows. All the stereotypes about Amsterdam are true and it makes a great place to wander around aimlessly just taking it all in.
On our final day we hired some bikes and headed out of the city towards the Coast. Some Aussie guys were doing the same thing, so we ended up forming a bit of a cycle tour together. Despite the fact it was absolutely pouring with rain for half our journey (yes it has been raining for us too!) it was really good value getting out of the city. Its strange how a lot of people think they have seen all there is to see of the “Netherlands” just by going to Amsterdam. It is a ridiculous, but widespread belief nonetheless. Our short trip outside the city offered everything from a 60’s looking beach town on the coast to enormous mansions with pitched roofs lining the canals. What’s more, it is an absolute dream to cycle in for the novice like me who tends to be a danger to both myself and all other traffic on the road - you can ride absolutely everywhere in your own dedicated cycle lanes. Definitely a country worth exploring more I think.
Two things worth mentioning about Geneva. First it is absolutely gorgeous, like a bigger city version of Queenstown. I hate to think how beautiful the rest of Switzerland must be if Geneva looks like that. Secondly, it is most possibly the most expensive place in the world (think $10 euro…yes that is NZ$20 for one Big Mac combo). Luckily we only had one night there and found the supermarket in time to do our official tour dish of pasta, tomato, capsicum and salami. It gets rolled out quite a bit believe me!
I must admit we were still feeling a little bruised post Americas Cup and tended to take great exception (quietly to ourselves of course) whenever we saw people wearing Alinghi merchandise.
TOUR DE FRANCE
We picked up a rental car in Geneva so that we could follow a few days of the Tour de France as it went through the French Alps. It is the first time we have been independently mobile, so that was a bit novel. However we were a little disappointed to discover that the car they had assigned to us was a particularly ugly silver diesel van thing. However, once on the motorway we discovered that half of France actually drives these.
After a brief familiarization to driving on the wrong side of the road we managed to find our way out of Geneva, through the toll gates and on to a small French town called Borg en Bresse to catch the finish of stage 6. We managed to positioned ourselves about 450m from the finish to watch the final sprint. For those who are unfamiliar with the Tour only have of the spectacle actually lies in the watching of the riders come through. For the couple of hours preceding the riders there is the procession of the ‘caravan’ which can only be described as a mobile circus that roles by and gives away all kinds of free stuff. We were pretty buzzed by the caravan and with the crowd that had gathered, but it was even more exciting when the riders flew by and we saw that Julian Dean (the only Kiwi in the race) was leading the sprint. He didn’t go on to place in the stage, but we didn’t care. That night we stayed in a ski lodge in a small alpine town.
Now we have been to quite a few different places so far on our trip, but we both agree that the French Alps trump them all. Everyone says that NZ is a beautiful place, and I wouldn’t disagree, but this place is something else. If you haven’t already had the opportunity to visit this area of the world, make sure you add it to your list of places to go.
Day two we went to see the finish of Stage 7 in a small village down the road. We decided that it would be a good idea to head up and see the top of the final climb (not knowing how far away this was). Although we could have stopped and watched from any point, once we had set out it was the top or bust. Well bust we almost did… in temps of 30+ we hiked up hill for over 13km. It was worth it though to see the riders come over the top and then start their decent down the other side.
That night we stayed in the shadows of Mont Blanc… another magic place.
The next morning we headed off into the tunnel that goes through Mont Blanc. We had heard about this previously and were looking forward to it, just like you do when you’re a kid. However, our excitement was quickly dispelled when we had to pay the 32 Euro (NZ$64) toll to go through the 13Km tunnel. I think I could have come up with a more exciting way to spend that money.
On our way to watch another hill climb on the Tour we passed over the most amazing mountain passes. At one stage getting up to 2770m. Driving up on what to me was the wrong side of little winding single lane mountain roads with camper vans coming the other is one sure way to test your nerves I can tell you that.
On our final day of watching the Tour the race was actually passing right through the village where we were staying, so we decided to just wander down the road and hang out in a pub watching the race on a big screen until they arrived. This was a nice way to chill out after a few days of some pretty full on driving.
I must say that even if you have no interest in cycling, watching a few days of the Tour de France as it passes through the French Alps is something that I highly recommend. We actually have no idea what is going on in the race itself, it was much more interesting just to go and watch the race for the spectacle that it is and take in some of the amazing scenery.
I think we will probably go in the Guinness Book of Records for admitting that we had a not so great experience in Italy. We had a day off from the Tour de France and decided to head just across the border to Torino (home of the 2006 Winter Olympics). The fact that I was navigating (and am very bad at it) was only part of the problem. Once we eventually made it into Torino (past several very unremarkable towns) we were faced with the most chaotic and frightening driving I think I have ever seen in my life. Kel was forced to swerve like a rally car driver. There were no less than 50 sets of traffic lights in and out of the city, hardly any lanes and of course no indicating. By the time we found the Olympic stadium we were so tired and rattled we decided just to get the hell out of there. We were both quite relieved when we found our way back into the tranquility of the small French mountain villages in the Alps.
Quite ironically on our way out we drove past an accident scene where a guy was being carried into an ambulance on a stretcher, which I cant say I found surprising the way they drive. No doubt the rest of Italy is fabulous but I think it is going to have to work harder to get my vote after my very short experience of it.
It’s now off to Ireland and England to have a look around and catch up with some friends.