Gorgeous Greece

Well here we are, about six weeks away from our return to Canada. Six weeks left of our adventure here posted to Europe. It certainly hasn’t been what we thought it would be when we left Canada, but we have definitely tried to make the best of it.
And in that vein, last week was the last school break Sophie will have here. It was one week off school. The next time she’s off school, it will be summer holidays and that’s when we get packed and take off for Ottawa. So we wanted to make the best of this last break. We actually let Sophie choose where to go – she chose Greece! (I mean, it wasn’t like she had to twist our arms!). We thought it was the perfect holiday – a few days in Athens and among history and ruins and seeing all of that, and then sail off to an island and enjoy beaches, swimming, sun, and relaxing for a few days.

We flew in to Athens. It was a long day of travel, the first time in Europe that we took connecting flights – but so be it. It wasn’t made any easier by the chaos of spring/summer 2022 airport madness everywhere – staff shortages made for long lineups and waits. We woke up around 0245 local time and finally made it to Athens and our hotel around 1800h. Whew! We immediately set out to find some good dinner around our hotel and it was not a hard ask!

The most important part was to get some Greek beer and a LOT of tzatziki, ASAP!:

We had a lovely dinner and explored the immediate neighbourhood then hit the hay, after such a long day of travel.


When we woke up, we knew we wanted to get out as early as we could manage, before the heat descended on us. Unfortunately, we were somewhat bound by the breakfast hours of our hotel. Luckily, they had a wonderful breakfast to serve us that made us want to stay – in all my time in Greece, I could never get enough of the true Greek yogurt, fruit, and honey.

On day one we went off to the Agora, the second-most famous ancient site in Athens.

Agora means ‘market’ and so this large area of ruins was literally the public marketplace of ancient times. We walked along the ancient streets, and saw ruins of shrines, aquaducts, alters, and more. All while being under the imposing shadow of the Acropolis on the hill above us.

The ambient temperature was about 35°C but it was a very dry heat and if you were anywhere shaded, it felt tolerable. As soon as you stepped into the sun, it felt like Hades. The sun was literally scorching. So after only about an hour looking around at Agora- because we forgot water (rookie mistake!)- we left and headed to a cafe. We then had a grand time perusing some shops and the city flea market. Wow, there were some stunning antiques there that made me drool. But they were quoting us very high tourist prices (way more than they were worth) and we didn’t have room in our luggage anyway.

When we travel, we always like an afternoon siesta. We always have but now we need it more especially with my limited walking capabilities. I need that break to give me enough energy to go out and do more again. However on this trip, we altered it more and actually used the siesta for its original intended purpose – to stay inside during the heat of the afternoon. We came back after being out in the morning and stayed in right until 1800h. In other cities we may have been ready to leave earlier, more at 1630h, but because of the heat, we waited until the sun dropped further. Then we went out and explored more, found a place for dinner, and ended up staying out way later than we would have otherwise (til like 2200h).

We explored the Plaka neighbourhood of Athens which is just pedestrian lanes of shops and restaurants.

After dinner, while ambling, we came across something my aunt really wanted me to try, and I figured, “while in Athens”! I got a fish pedicure!

Then we figured that was enough adventure for the night, and made our way back to the hotel.

On our second day, we wanted to head to the Acropolis as early as we could before the heat got excruciating, as there isn’t much shade up there on the hill! We took a cab as far up as we could go then walked some. Then there is a spot where everyone continues on walking up the hill, but where disabled guests can veer off (you have to know what you’re looking for, as it’s actually the exit!) and it leads towards an elevator! There is a beautiful brand new glass elevator that goes up the side of the cliff to the Acropolis that is very strictly for disabled guests (you can’t use it just because you have a baby pram). You end up getting an amazing view of Athens as you go up!
I met Sophie and Eric at the top.

The top of the Acropolis was pretty impressive. However, you could definitely tell how and where the British explorers simply took whatever they wanted and left.
So when we were done up there, we went down to the (air conditioned) Acropolis museum. There, they had a lot of original relics, but also a lot of the story of what everything would look like today had the English not stolen whatever they wanted and taken it to Britain.

Here’s an example of what above the entrance to the Acropolis would have looked like originally, and mostly still today had it not be pillaged by the English:

The next day, I needed a break from the heat and excessive walking. Sophie had really wanted to go to Delphi, so we compromised and decided for me to stay behind and take it easy and for Eric and Sophie to book a bus day-tour to Delphi. The tour they were on was very inaccessible so if I had gone we would have ended up getting a much more expensive, probably private, tour. They enjoyed themselves a lot and got to see the ancient ‘centre of the world’.

While they toured Delphi, I went back to the flea market and let myself get a few little non-Greek vintage antiques. I had fun haggling with the vendors (cutting the ‘tourist price’ down by 80%) and while the pieces aren’t Greek, they’ll be able to sit in my new house and I’ll always look at them and think of my time in an Athenian flea market and how I got them. I figured they were better than any cheap tourist novelty that I could buy in any shop! I also spent my time having a nice long drink and lunch in a lane and people watching, it was great. Oh, I also went to a laundromat and made sure we had clean knickers for the week ahead!

Now we were done our Athenian adventure and ready to move on – to the Cyclades islands!!! We were going to the island of Naxos. You’ve probably heard of the more popular Greek islands Santorini, Mykokos, Corfu, Crete, and Rhodes, but we specifically chose a lesser (but just as beautiful) island because it would have less tourists and be quieter.
We took a Blue Star ferry there. It’s a 5-hour trip and when booking, Eric noticed that it was only €10 per person to upgrade from the economy seats to the business class lounge. Well, for a 5-hour trip, sure! This wasn’t first-class like on an airplane where everything is included and free, but it’s just access to a big, comfortable lounge at the front of the ship with panoramic views. There were also kind waiters willing to run around and get what we ordered, but we needed to pay for whatever we wanted.
Naxos was absolutely stunning. Not only was it physically cooler than Athens, it was just such a relief to be out of the dusty, dirty city and in this oasis, beautiful resort island.

We spent our days on Naxos relaxing. We didn’t stay right in the main town on the island, but just about 10 minutes out of it, on the more calm side of the island (less huge waves, better swimming). Eric did all this research and booking, and he did absolutely amazing. Our hotel had its own private section of beach with lounge chairs and umbrellas and it was guaranteed that every single guest would have a chair and umbrella at all times – you never had to worry about rushing down to the beach early in the morning to snag a spot. They also provided us with large, cozy beach towels.

In this paradise, it was hard to have a rough moment or take a bad picture.


People all over the island rent motor scooters (Vespa-types) and ATVs. Half a block from our hotel there was a motor-rental (they did cars and everything else). Eric had considered getting a car to explore the island if we wanted to come with him but Sophie and I just wanted to stay on the beach, we’d had enough ruins! He couldn’t let himself relax that long. So he went and rented a 4-wheeler ATV and headed out! He went all over the island with that thing and saw some ancient ruins as well as some more recent ones (a few decades ago they started to build a hotel and then abandoned it).

One evening, we went into the main town on Naxos (Chora) for dinner and went through the adorable little lanes.

And after dinner, Eric and Sophie went to climb up to the Apollo temple, which people like to get a photo of at sunset- but Sophie gave up quickly when she started getting sprayed by the huge waves on the breakwater. So she came back to meet me while Eric continued up to it. (I was drinking a glass of wine at a cafe and watching the view of the sunset and temple from ground level).

On our last full day there, we had the day booked to do a snorkeling catamaran tour, but the wind had been picking up progressively throughout the week, and by this day the waves were quite big and the tour had to be cancelled. On our side of the island though, it was still relatively calm, so since we were getting a ton of money back from the tour cancellation, we splurged €20 on some cheap tourist-shop snorkels and had fun exploring the little reef near our beach and seeing the fishies around us. The water was just so perfectly clear, it was so easy to do.

When we took the ferry back to Athens, due to the winds and waves it was a lot more choppy than our sailing over to Naxos! Two out of the three of us required some Gravol to get through the 5-hour sailing!

Then when we got back to Athens, we went to a small aparthotel Eric booked. We had originally booked flights for very early the next day and we were just going to go to an airport hotel, but KLM had since changed our flights to 12 hours later and now we had all day to waste in Athens. So we got a hotel in town with a rooftop pool.
Unfortunately, we were just vacationed-out by then. We were beat! All we wanted to do was lay in bed and watch Netflix and eat Dominoes and go home! Athens seemed too hot and too dusty after the paradise that was Naxos.
We did nothing that night and the next morning we needed to check out of our room by 11. We didn’t need to be at the airport until 3pm, so we decided to leave our bags with the front desk and go to the nearby National Archaeological Museum – because we knew it was air conditioned and I could get a wheelchair there (knowing I had to navigate 2 airports later that day, I didn’t want to wear-out by walking around all day).

Here, there was everything from ancient Greece to ancient Egypt and Rome. Sophie and I actually thought we’d be really bored at it and just went for something to do, but we were somewhat impressed! It was a cool museum.

However, the time came to leave. Off to the airport, but of course then our flight had been delayed, almost 2 hours – which was exactly the time of the layover we had in Amsterdam. We were told on check-in that we likely won’t make our next flight so we had no idea what to expect.
Turns out we DID make our flight, only because our second flight was running about half an hour late. I had Accessibility Services booked and they ran me right there in a wheelchair. No waiting anywhere! However, our bag did not make the second flight. It’s now seven days later and still no bag. I called KLM two days ago and it had been located but is still sitting in Amsterdam.
Any bets on when we’ll get it? Hopefully by the time we need to move to Ottawa!

Greece was a wonderful way to end our European adventures. We’ll definitely remember all these trips and holidays and excursions we’ve had. Thank you everyone for letting me share with you and for feigning interest in our escapades!

Cheers!

Delightfully Dutch

Belgium was wonderful but it was time to move on – so we packed up the car on Thursday morning and started to continue North-East towards the Netherlands. Have I yet mentioned how fabulous the roads in Europe are? Yes, the roads right amongst the medieval buildings are narrow and cobbled; but there, they use actual logic and make the roads one-way and therefore not stressful and terrifying (like in the UK, when you’re constantly worried that you’ll meet an oncoming car with no room on either side to spare). Outside the very old areas, any roads that have been built in the last 70 years have actually been built with space and shoulders and not as narrow as the medieval roads inside the cities! Imagine that! So even though we were driving a right-hand-drive English car on the continent, it wasn’t really an issue, because we felt so spoiled by the wonderful roads (or we had just been so ruined in the past 2.5 years by the horrible UK roads!).

On our way to our hotel in the Netherlands, we stopped at Kinderdijk, a UNESCO world heritage site that has preserved the traditional windmills built on the dykes along the canals and teaches about how the Netherlands started pumping water and maintained water levels for over 700 years.

The windmills were actually really awesome. We got to see inside a working one, how people would live inside it. We learned how they would all pump water and how much water to keep levels down and prevent flooding. Especially considering that this started 700 years ago, it’s no wonder that the world looks to the Netherlands for water-level control tips. As you drive across the country and see the ditches and canals dug through the fields and cities, you are acutely aware that it’s all currently below sea level and they are actively keeping water levels under control at all times. It’s pretty amazing. Now, of course, it’s all done by electric or steam pump houses, but it was all once originally done by these wind mills.

We drove to the city of Utrecht- where we were staying in the Netherlands. Utrecht is a small city about a 30-minute train ride outside of Amsterdam. Hotels (and airBnBs- all accommodation) were incredibly expensive in the Netherlands – whether it was because it was over Easter weekend or not, I’m not sure; But hotels were about $800 (CAD) a night in Amsterdam and less than half (but still expensive) in Utrecht. So it was obviously worth staying in Utrecht.
Utrecht isn’t a particularly notable city, but it is a nice Dutch city. The inner main town has the quintessential dutch-style buildings, there are bicyclists everywhere, and canals. We stayed at a lovely train station hotel, Inntel Hotels, with a great family room. It was also next door to a huge mall, so there was always something to eat (sometimes the problem with travel is just finding a place that’s open when we’re hungry, especially in Europe!). We actually weren’t planning to stay in Utrecht any full day while we were there, but it was a good place to sleep, eat, and park our car.

(We had dinner at the restaurant on the canalside to the left of this photo on our second night in Utrecht.)

On our first full day in the Netherlands, we had big plans. In fact, it was part of the whole reason we initially decided to plan this roadtrip all the way back in 2019.
My grandfather was a paratrooper in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion in WWII. He died in March 2019.
Back in November 2019, we visited some notable sites of the 1CPB in Normandy and commemorated him, and I wrote about it here and here. By the time he died, we knew we would be moving to England and during my last conversation with him I promised him that I would visit Groesbeek Cemetery in the Netherlands – the final resting place of his best friend from the war. I promised him that we would go see ‘Andy’ (as we always knew him) and pay our respects. I think my grandfather lived his (very long) whole life with survivor’s guilt that he came home and Andy didn’t. He was in touch with Andy’s family, they exchanged Christmas flowers every year; and every year on Remembrance day, we knew he was thinking of Andy.

In the above photo, it’s my grandfather on the left during WWII, and Andy McNally on the right.


I had an artificial poppy from my papa’s funeral arrangement – there were 7 of these poppies atop his casket and I got 2. One, I left at Juno beach on Remembrance Day and the other I wanted to take to Andy’s grave. I encased it in resin so that it could stay there for a very long time.

It was a 90-minute drive to Groesbeek Cemetery from Utrecht but so worth it. When we got there, I knew right where to go in the cemetery- Andy would be at the back right corner. Along with the poppy in resin, we brought fresh flowers to lay as well.

I definitely felt my Papa there with me that morning. I could hear him pointing us out to Andy – “That’s my granddaughter and my great-granddaughter! They came here for you! I told you we’d never forget you, buddy!”
We also had about 20 Canadian lapel poppies from the past Remembrance Day, so we brought them and placed them at the graves of all the 1CPB men around Andy. We will remember them.

After our visit to Groesbeek, we headed about 30 minutes down the road to Oosterbeek, where the Airborne Museum is. This museum was mostly dedicated to the British units of paratroopers who were a part of operation Market Garden in September 1944 and the ensuing failed Battle of Arnhem. We expected a small little museum with one or two displays, but this museum spanned over 5 floors of the huge mansion, and was jam-packed with history, stories, and mementos. We originally thought we might spend 30-40 minutes at this place and ended up staying for 2 hours. My grandfather wasn’t in the units that were a part of Market Garden, but he did wear that Airborne Pegasus on his arm. I found it all very interesting.

Above is a monument erected in 1994 by the British Airborne veterans who 50 years later, still felt wracked with guilt. They are apologising to the town, saying we came to help, we tried our hardest, but in the end we had to retreat and when we left, we caused more devastation than there was when we arrived. Because, when the allies retreated, the Germans insisted that all the locals leave as well. Until then, they (if not Jewish) had been living among the German occupiers somewhat normally, but after September 1944, they had to leave their homes and they faced homelessness, a freezing winter, utter famine, and thousands died.



The next day we hopped on a train and headed in to Amsterdam! There’s a million things you can do in Amsterdam, but I always have to pace myself or my legs simply won’t carry me that far, so we can’t do it all. All I really wanted to do was see the city. Eric had already been before about a decade ago for a weekend, so he’d seen what he wanted to see. I wanted to see the houses, the canals, the bikes. I love walking through a city and seeing the people of it go about their lives, and the architecture and how it differs from other cities. We did look into tickets to the Anne Frank house, but they had been all booked up even a month before we got there – every single ticket for every single day. So there was no chance we could get in there unless we had booked back in January, unfortunately.

We booked tickets on a canal cruise in order to see the city. Our cruise also came with an open bar and cheese boards!

We just had a lot of fun then walking around the city, seeing where people park right beside the canal (how??) – though we did learn on our cruise that they have to take about 1 car a week out of the canals and they dredge up an average of 20 000 bikes a year from the canals… so, there’s that!

I honestly don’t know what was more impressive, Venice or Amsterdam. Both are full of canals and held up on large posts underneath the city. Venice is crumbling and doesn’t seem to keep up the maintenance as well or its infrastructure while Amsterdam seems beautifully modern in comparison. The age of Venice is appealing in a romantic way that can’t be matched, though. Amsterdam seems more accessible via car, train, plane, etc – not just by boat. But it is certainly interesting that two cities seem so entirely different are actually so very similar.


On our last day, we checked out of our hotel in Utrecht, hopped in the car and headed northwards towards the sea— and Keukenhof! Keukenhof is the most quintessentially perfect Dutch spring garden.

It mainly showcases tulips; but there are bulb flowers of all sorts, including lots of daffodil and hyacinth varieties.
We learned a lot about tulips- their history (did you know they’re actually from Turkey?); how they made the Netherlands one of the richest countries in the world in the 1600s; and how horticulturists devise new tulip varieties (it takes over 25 years to get a new type of tulip bulb to the public!). But mostly, we just enjoyed looking at SO MANY BEAUTIFUL TULIPS. Keukenhof is only open 6 weeks a year! They just close it down the rest of the year!! We were also there on Easter Sunday, probably the busiest day of the year. But we just felt so lucky that the weather was gorgeous (about 20°C) and sunny and we could enjoy this stunning place.

When we left the actual Keukenhof park, we did what most of the tourists did – travel en masse along the small farm roads beside Keukenhof to see the tulip bulb fields. These are the fields of tulips that you see in photographs all the time and how we usually picture ‘Holland’. It’s actually where they are growing the bulbs of the new varieties of tulips – propagating them to get more and more viable bulbs. The amount of people out on these dyke roads was crazy and even people in the fields (they weren’t supposed to be) but we loved seeing the fields and got some great shots as we drove past.

It was really the neatest thing to see.

After seeing these fields, we headed straight for the coast. We ate dinner on the Holland seaside (which felt just like the British seaside – we were watching a ferris wheel and people bungee jump while we had dinner!) and then went along to our ferry. We had a booking on an overnight sailing from Holland to Harwich, England across the North Sea. The ferry was due to leave at 10pm but we could board as early at 7pm. We had a nice private cabin for the 3 of us and a fantastic crossing thanks to very calm seas.

Our holiday is over and we are so very happy with it. Other than Eric’s unfortunate day of illness, everything went off quite well. We saw such wonderful things and enjoyed ourselves so much. I’m immensely pleased that we finally got to take this roadtrip that we’d been planning since the end of 2019. I feel at peace that I got to honour my grandfather and his war buddy, and we got to visit Vimy Ridge, too. Seeing everything in between like Bruges and tulips in the Netherlands was all just delicious icing on the cake.

Thanks for joining us on this journey!




Beautiful Belgium

The morning we left Arras, France, we headed straight for the Belgian border. Of course, it’s Europe so driving over borders is as easy as driving over provincial borders, and with almost as little fanfare. (We did have to fill out Covid tracking papers for Belgium the week before we travelled, but no one was stopping anyone, and it was pretty lax).
Our original plans were to head to Ypres and tour the In Flanders Fields museum, reportedly the best WWI museum in the area. We were also going to go see the Menin Gate Memorial while in Ypres. Unfortunately, Eric was barely over his violent food poisoning, and hadn’t even yet eaten solid food. He was just sucking back Powerade and hoping for the best. Luckily, he was able to get us on the road.
So we scrapped the plans for Ypres. We let him sleep-in as our check-out time in Arras wasn’t until noon.

We headed to Belgium and made our first stop at Tyne Cot Cemetery. This is a First World War cemetery and is the largest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the world. It is mainly a Passchendaele cemetery and its expanse shows the atrocities of that battle.

After Tyne Cot, we went to The Brooding Soldier statue at St. Juliaan. This monument was actually the runner-up design for the Vimy memorial. It is now the memorial for the second battle of Ypres.

Then only 10 miles from the brooding soldier, there was a ‘museum’ of sorts that we had plans to meet at. We are interested in collecting ‘trench art’ and do a lot of it in the UK, so I’ve been in a Facebook group for trench art appreciation and the man who runs it lives in this small Belgian town, Lizern. He welcomes people to come view his collection any time so we thought we’d stop in. It was amazing, he’s been collecting trench art in Flanders for 50+ years. He had some excess pieces and was willing to sell us at good prices so we got a few for our own collection, too. The bonus of being in our own car and not having to worry about luggage restrictions!

We got back on the road and headed directly to Bruges from there. Eric navigated the tiny, narrow streets to get us to our hotel, and found a disabled parking bay right out front. When we went to check in, we asked about parking and learned that (like in the UK) disabled parking is free in Belgium, so we could park free for the next 3 days. Great! Because we weren’t intending to move the car the entire time we were in Bruges. Once we checked in, Eric went straight to bed. He had pulled it together as best he could since Arras in order to make the drive and a few stops, but he needed rest.
Sophie and I were eager to explore our new surroundings in what looked like a picturesque city, so we let him nap and went out to wander on our own for a little bit.

Eric eventually met us out for dinner (he didn’t eat much, but it’s the first meal he’d joined us for in 2 days) and we turned in knowing we would thoroughly enjoy our time in Bruges.
The next morning we had no specific plans other than to slowly explore Bruges. We made our way to the large town centre square and stopped for coffee (and a Belgian waffle, of course).

Then we decided to get a horse-drawn carriage ride tour of historic Bruges. These leave from the town square and are licensed by the city of Bruges. They are kitsch but they sure did look like a fun way to get around (something I always need), get some history of the town, and enjoy Bruges. Our horse was Marcel and I don’t remember our guide’s name! But she was great, telling us a lot about the history of the area, the architecture, and the people (as well as what were the best waffle houses and chocolate houses!).

After our horse tour, we walked around a bit to some of the points of interest that our guide had mentioned- specifically, the chocolate houses. Bruges has a chocolate shop about every 50 feet. It looks and smells amazing.

Something I just absolutely loved to do was walk through this city. Bruges is the most medieval city in Belgium, essentially untouched by wars or bombing. The houses and architecture were stunning and I just loved looking at it all. There wasn’t anything specific I wanted to stop and do, but just keep going down new streets and looking at this beautiful city.

On our second day in Bruges, it was more of the same- just trying to walk around and enjoy this beautiful little city. Though, we had to stop at the French Fry museum.

Belgium has no specific proof that the French Fry was invented there, but they like to lay claim to it. Not unlike Canada with hockey… so we let it slide, for that reason. One thing is for sure, they do make delicious french fries and the mayo dip has grown on me, it’s pretty delish!

Eric and Sophie rented some bicycles for a couple hours in the afternoon. Sophie hadn’t been on a bike for about 4-5 years and we knew that once we got to the Netherlands, it would be even busier bike-wise, so we thought to do it here in Bruges, because she really wanted to. The bike culture is really huge here, everyone bikes everywhere and it’s so easy to when everywhere is so flat! They had a fun time getting around the city this way.

We did a little shopping while walking around, and we did little photo shoots when we saw the light and angles just right, too. Above is Sophie just looking like a supermodel walking around Bruges.

Overall, we loved our time in Belgium. The next morning, we packed up and left early to head towards the Netherlands. That’s been a pretty fantastic time in its own right so will be the next blog post.

Vimy Ridge Day

Back at the end of 2019 (pre-pandemic), we got this idea to travel to the continent in the springtime during Sophie’s 2-week Easter break. We could take the Chunnel or a ferry and use our own car and roadtrip across a few countries- being able to hit Vimy Ridge on 9 April for Vimy Ridge day and the Netherlands during tulip season. Well, of course the world had other plans and in early 2020 we had to scrap this springtime roadtrip idea and instead we sat in our own garden. Then we thought of it again in 2021, but Covid was still rampant and Belgium and Netherlands had very strict entry and quarantine rules.

So here we are in 2022. We held our breath. We didn’t book anything until only a couple weeks before, when finally the entry requirements for Belgium and Netherlands loosened. We would get to do the springtime roadtrip we’ve been planning for 3 years!

This blog post will just be about the first, Hauts-de-France portion of it though. It actually would have been longer, but… You’ll see.

We took the Chunnel to France from Dover. That in itself was a cool experience, driving onto the train and travelling through the tunnel. I tried hard not to think about what was overhead and then boom, 35 minutes later we were outside and in France!

We drove pretty much straight to Arras from there to check in to our hotel. We didn’t do much that night but grab a quick bite to eat and get to bed early as we had a lot planned the following day.

The next day was 9 April. Back in 2019 when we came up with this idea, 9 April 2020 was supposed to land right in the middle of Sophie’s 2-week Easter break. This time, it was the very first day, so we applied to her school to let her skip a day (Friday) so that we could use it as a travel day and be at Vimy in time.
The ceremonies actually begin in Arras on 9 April at 0630h which is the exact time that allied soldiers left the Wellington Tunnels to begin the Battle of Arras (of which Vimy was a key part). Well- we weren’t about to get up and go to that, but when we went to breakfast at our hotel, there were quite a few military personnel in full dress also at breakfast who had obviously just come from the ceremonies at the tunnels and whom we expected to see later at the Vimy ceremony.

The Vimy ceremony was to be at 1400h. We wanted to see the Visitor’s Centre there beforehand as well as the war cemeteries, so we bought some baguette sandwiches at a local bakery and packed a picnic lunch (Vimy is out in the middle of no-where). We also read that the Visitor’s Centre would be closed for a while over the lunch hour as they prepare for the ceremony so we planned to arrive around 1130h.

We left for Vimy and it’s only about a 15-minute drive from Arras, but through some small villages and some often-winding roads. Sophie was fine until we got to the parking lot at Vimy… then the waves of carsick nausea were too much for her and she got sick there on Vimy’s soil (not unlike many of her Canadian brethren 105 years before her, I’m sure). Her blood glucose was already going low when we were arriving and then she vomited up most of her breakfast, so I was immediately worried – this could quickly become a medical emergency. When a type 1 diabetic vomits, it’s always a bit difficult. They’ve thrown-up the food that they’ve already taken insulin for – so you need to replace those carbohydrates. If they feel too sick to eat or drink sugar, you’re in trouble. Like I said, she was already low so we needed to act fast. We sat her down on a bench in some fresh air and luckily she got an appetite back pretty quick. A fingerpoke showed a blood glucose of 1.5 – one of the lowest readings I’ve ever seen on her. We just shoved her full of all the carbs we could. Pack after pack of skittles and granola bars. We stopped counting. Eric ran in to the visitor’s centre to find a vending machine and buy a full-sugar can of cola. Whatever we could. But it all worked and she felt good in the end. Phewf! (This is exactly why my purse is always loaded with a ton of candy and snacks, as well as the car and house!)

Well- by the time this was all over, we walked in to the visitor’s centre to peruse it and— they were closing! Oh well. There was still a lot we could do outside before the ceremony.

We went over to the preserved trenches. They were really amazing to see, essentially the exact trenches just like they’d been encased in a thin layer of concrete (I know there was a lot more to it than that) for eternity.

It was astounding to think that the ground is still like this, 105 years later, still pockmarked and full of craters and holes. It’s still not safe to enter the cordoned-off areas.


Here is a fascinating 11-minute video about Zone Rouge, the huge area of France that is still unusable and considered a danger from WWI. It talks about how they estimate well over a billion shells landed on French soil and there are millions left still to clean up. They still find thousands every year. Apparently the biggest threat isn’t the explosions, it’s the gas. Definitely check out the video.

After going through the trenches and seeing all that, we stopped and had our picnic lunch, then we piled into the car and drove the short distance over to the Canadian CWGC cemetaries (located between the visitor’s centre and the Vimy monument).


I have visited many CWGC WWII cemetaries but this was the first time I’d walked rows of WWI gravestones. I was really taken aback by how many unknown soldiers there were, probably at least 2/3 of the cemetary were just ‘A Soldier of the Great War’.

As I walked the rows I thought of how disfigured these boys must have been, all of them, to not have been identified. Some of them were able to be identified as Canadian or British from their uniform, or if they were lucky their regiment could even be identified. We even saw one headstone that said ‘Two soldiers of the Great War’ so you knew they were unable to disentangle them and they had to share a grave. I also had to think of the people who were tasked to build these cemeteries; exhume the hastily dug battlefield mass graves and bring the corpses to the cemetery. While it was a very important job at the time, 100+ years later, it has been lost to history and one of those thankless, dirty jobs that no one thinks about but had to be done.

After paying our respects at both cemeteries, we headed on to the Vimy monument for the ceremony. Above is the view of the monument from the Givenchy Road Cemetary (the smaller of the 2 cemeteries).

Once we got to the ceremony, we settled in and waited. We got there around 1315h and it didn’t start until around 1415h.

If you’ve ever been to a Canadian Remembrance Day ceremony or special commemorative day ceremony, you know exactly what the ceremony entailed. It wasn’t any different than any others. We didn’t take photos or video because that’s just disrespectful. But we did enjoy it and it was really nice to be there for it on Vimy Day. We could have walked up to the monument any day of the year, but there was definitely a special weight to being there exactly 105 years after thousands of our Canadian soldiers fought so hard and proved so much to win it from the Germans. It was nice to be able to remember the 3000+ dead and 7000+ wounded with a couple hundred other Canadians who found it important enough to be there, as well as some French and other allies.

After the ceremony we took a few photos of the monument:

I like the above photo because so often, people want a photo of the monument with no one else in it. This photo packed full of people just shows exactly what we’re meant to do – Lest We Forget. Every WWI veteran is long gone, but we’re all still honouring the ones who died in battle and the ones who came home. Look how many people still remember and won’t forget. To remember is an active verb and I like how this photo illustrates just that at Vimy Ridge on 9 April.

After the ceremony, we finally got to go to the Visitor’s Centre. It isn’t very big, but it is a beautiful centre with some very interesting content.

It is full of info about how the soldiers lived, the trenches, who they left behind, and why they were so willing to fight. Great little museum.

After the visitor’s centre, we went back in to Arras for a siesta and dinner.

It was Sophie’s turn to choose dinner and she stuck with our patriotic theme for the day and wanted to go to the Canadian Poutine restaurant we had seen the day before.

We had a nice quick dinner of fries covered in cheese and gravy (which Eric and Sophie totally loved because they hadn’t had poutine in like 2 years) and then back out to Vimy for 2030h.
Vimy was putting on an evening ‘video mapping’ event. We weren’t told much of it (despite asking) but it was some sort of video projection about Vimy on the side of the building and only for a few nights. They were very proud of it and we thought, well we’re here and it’s only 15 minutes away.

We sat at Vimy and watched the sun go down over the shell-pocked fields.

When the video projection came on (when it was finally dark), we were actually really impressed. They had colourised the photos and even animated some of them – some of the photos showed a soldier sort of waving, or limping, or a stretcher with a soldier swaying. It was really neat. It talked about when war broke out, the boys at home in Canada signing up to fight, thinking it will be over by Christmas. It talked about the dreariness once they learned the realities of war and trenches. It showed how nursing sisters were some of the bravest heroes of the war – willing to be near all the shelling, gas attacks, see the horrific carnage– all while never brandishing their own weapon. There also were some wonderful photos of 9 April 1917, the actual assault on Vimy Ridge and just afterwards.
When we had watched the 20 minute video, it was really dark by then and we could see the Vimy monument lit up, and she looked spectacular. So we decided to drive over and see it at nighttime.


I left Vimy feeling overwhelmed and just so grateful. Grateful for my nation’s forefathers who fought for us, grateful for their victory, overwhelmed with sadness at the immense loss of the war and all the wars since…. It’s just, a lot.

The next day we were still booked in to our hotel in Arras so we had planned to see more WWI memorials such as Beaumont-Hamel, but unfortunately fate had other plans…
Around 0200h, suddenly Eric woke up sick. He was violently sick all night and into the morning. We knew then that the day’s plans were wiped. Sophie and I took our meals together in restaurants and we walked around town a little bit in the sun while Eric laid in bed, half comatose. At this point, we had no idea if this illness was food poisoning or a noro-type virus that would then attack both Sophie and me and ruin the rest of our week. We were nervous.
Well, spoiler alert— now as I write this, it is 5 days later and we know for sure that it was just Eric. The only thing that he alone ate and Sophie and I didn’t was our picnic lunch at Vimy- – – he had a baguette with chicken and egg. Sophie and I both had ham. We have to assume that was the culprit. In my almost 18 years of knowing Eric, I have been that sick at least 10-12 times, but I have never, ever seen him get that sick. It was awful. He has an iron stomach, so I am just glad that it was him who got it because it probably would have landed me in the hospital! And a vomiting illness with Sophie’s diabetes would have likely landed her in the hospital too— so I suppose we got lucky?

So this blog post ends after telling you really just about one day, Vimy Day. But wasn’t it an amazing day?
The next day, we left Arras for Belgium— I’ll leave that for the next blog post because I’ve talked your ear off enough for one post here.

The Best of Budapest

When planning a February city-break in this pandemic world, we needed to do our research on every possible location and its entry requirements. We knew we’d love to travel somewhere in Eastern Europe, but so many locations were closed off to foreigners or very difficult to get in to. One location I’ve always wanted to visit was Hungary and by January, we found out it was very easy to get into (we just had to all be vaccinated, done x3!).

So off to Budapest we went, for February half-term break!

To start, I’ll say we flew RyanAir there, our first time with them. We’d heard the horrid stories and avoided them for 2.5 years, but they were the only direct flight to Hungary from Bristol so we tried it. I just wanted to take this paragraph and say, we regretted it and they were nothing but crap service from beginning to end. It wasn’t even just about the flight or the seats, but service and kindness is free and you can tell so much about a company by how they treat their customers. We will never fly with RyanAir again.

Alas, we made it to Budapest. By the time we got in to the city and our hotel, night was falling but we soon learned that Budapest really shines at night!

The view of Buda Castle from the end of our street – the first sight we saw after checking in to our hotel


We were starving and very excited to dig in to some Hungarian food. (For some background, my mom’s family was all Hungarian and I grew up eating a lot of Hungarian food). We walked a couple blocks and found this very touristy restaurant:

And I got to have one of my favourite childhood dishes, chicken paprikas:

(It was delicious)


Once I had the paprikas, only a few hours into being in Hungary, I was satisfied and complete and ready to go home! Haha! That was really all I wanted and needed out of my trip to Hungary. Just kidding!
We then went down the street and had some classic chimney cakes for dessert (a type of warm, sweet, baked dough in a hollow cylindrical form) and walked to the large St. Stephen’s Basilica. The Basilica, like most of Budapest is more stunning lit up at night.
(note: It’s not to say these beautiful places aren’t stunning in daylight as well, but just that Budapest really knows how to light their buildings and show them off at night- they just take your breath away.)

The next day, after a good rest in our hotel (D8 Hotel Budapest, a fantastic mid-range hotel in a superb Pest location), we got out early to head over to the Great Budapest Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe and second largest in the world. Here, we learned a lot about the history, persecution, and demise of many Hungarian Jews. Did you know that 1 in 3 of the victims at Auschwitz were Hungarian Jews? Almost 600,000 Hungarians died in the Holocaust.


The garden there had some beautiful memorials to the Hungarian Jews lost in the Holocaust. One such was a metal weeping willow that each leaf was inscribed with a name of someone who was murdered in the Holocaust. The effect was stunning and yet so somber.

It was so poignant to us to be there and listening to these horror stories of murders, mass graves, and deportations just as war was starting to break out in the country right next to us at the time, Ukraine. We promised for 80 years that we would never forget, and yet here we stood, next to it again.

After the synagogue tours, we were ready for something to fill our bellies and our backpacks! We went to the large, central market hall of Budapest.

I bought about a kilo of paprika. Every half-Hungarian girl needs multiple varieties in her kitchen for cooking, and this stuff is GOOD!


After filling our bellies with Hungarian street food and buying (what felt like) everything we saw, we went to St. Stephen’s Basilica. We saw it the night before but this time we went inside and toured. We’re used to seeing some very old cathedrals in Europe, so it was interesting to see this relatively newer one, completed in 1905.

The basilica also famously houses the “incorruptible” right hand of St. Stephen I of Hungary… to see it, you put a coin in a machine and the reliquary will light up for 2 minutes, much like a peep show- oh the irony.

Eric and I also decided to pay the little extra ticket price to take the elevator up to the top of the dome for the view. Sophie wouldn’t even consider it.
St. Stephen’s is 96m high, the exact same height as the famous parliament buildings. Wikipedia is telling me that when it was built, this was intentional as a way to symbolise that worldly and spiritual thinking have the same importance.
So, we went to the top. It’s mostly all by 2 small, consecutive elevators – I do not suggest you do this if there are many tourists because the elevators can only fit about 4-6 people at a time and would take forever if there was any kind of lineup. There are also about 45 mandatory stairs along with the elevators so beware that this is not a perfectly accessible attraction (they did kindly warn me ahead of time, though).
Once we were outside on the dome itself it was damn windy, I was incredibly scared of the height, but the view really was gorgeous. I still would not do it again – though Eric would without hesitation.

In my opinion, fear of heights is natural self preservation


Later on in the evening after our dinner (of more tasty Hungarian food), we decided to get sky-high yet again. Because Budapest is more beautiful all lit up at night, we wanted to take this touristy ferris wheel at night, not in the day.

This time, Sophie came with us even though she was nervous and not sure she wanted to. She didn’t like the idea of being so high up and just dangling in a little metal box. I’m not really sure I blame her.

However, once we got going, the views were beautiful and we had a nice time. Sophie eventually got comfortable in our little pod and maybe even enjoyed it by the last rotation. It actually was a fun ride and a lovely end to our day.

The view of St. Stephen’s and the dome we had just been on.


On day 2 we hopped into a cab and drove across the Danube for the first time to visit the Buda side of the river.

The Buda side of the river is much more residential, and much more hilly. Actually, pretty much one great big hill – almost a cliff, or small escarpment. The Buda Castle is built right on top of this cliff and the cab has to take some switch-back roads to get up to it. Once you’re up at the top though, we were quite impressed and pleased to find this pretty, quiet, little village. It almost reminded me of a type of removed little tourist village like Whistler Village or something. It felt entirely different to the streets of Pest only a few miles away. Like the rest of Budapest, there were hardly any tourists anywhere and no line-ups. We walked around the grounds of Buda Castle for a little while and took some photos. We didn’t want to go in because frankly, after a few years in Europe, we’ve seen a LOT of castles and it starts to get repetitive. We find when you’ve only got a few days for a city break, unless there’s something you specifically want to see in a castle or location, there’s just no point in touring it for the sake of touring it. They are start melting into each other in our minds and memories, isn’t that horrible!?

Sophie took a picture of Eric and me in front of Buda Castle


There were also great views of the Pest side of the city:

We then walked around into the small clifftop village area (it’s called Castle District). First, one needs to walk past the presidential palace and there, there are ceremonial armed guards out front who do a little ceremonial march between their posts every 15 minutes or so. It’s very kitschy and fun to watch, but they also look like 17- or 18-year-old boys who look super bored with the job of walking back and forth in front of the door, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them and hope they got paid decently enough. At least they wore warm coats.

In the village, I needed to rest my legs so we stopped for a coffee and cake in what we assumed would be a very over-the-top tourist joint (it was right on the biggest corner and the first place we saw, impossible to miss). However, we went in and it had the sweetest vibes and most delectable looking cakes. We got gourmet coffees and drinks, and artisanal cakes, for about the cheapest prices and best service we’d yet had in Budapest (we had been noticing in some places that they would seat us, give us menus, and then not come back for 20+ minutes…).

After a rest we walked onward to the Fisherman’s Bastion. It is so named because apparently it used to form the walls of a castle and underneath here was where the fishermen lived… I don’t know. Internet/Wikipedia history is sketchy and even when we were in Budapest, the history was sort of obscure. We were told some fishermen lived under it once and it used to be part of a castle. What really matters now is that it is a beautiful location and overlooking the Danube and Pest, it was sooooo Insta worthy.

Right there at Fisherman’s Bastion is the very beautiful Matthias Church, with the coloured mosaic tile rooftop. We were there on a very sunny day and it just shone wonderfully.

They bragged that we could buy some of the ceramic roof tiles in the church gift shop if we wanted to. Then we saw actual large (20-24″) individual tiles. It was so random! Like, why would I want to buy a single brown roofing tile here? Anyway, this was a gorgeous church, both inside and out.

While we were in Castle District, we wanted to go see Hospital In The Rock, a nuclear bunker museum in the cliff under Buda Castle built in WWII. We got there and tried to buy tickets – It was about 2:05pm and the next tickets weren’t until 3pm. We didn’t realise that they were only guided tours, no self-guided visits. We didn’t want to wait so we left and didn’t get to see this gem. Oh well.

Instead, we turned around and visited the next best thing in the Castle District – The Houdini Museum. The House of Houdini is also only guided tours, but they are like every 20 minutes and were due to start one soon. Here, we had a tour of their small museum and learned all about the life and times of one Erik Weisz, born in Budapest in 1874 (Houdini was his stage name).

Eric in a replica of Houdini’s escape safe


After the tour, where we not only learned a lot but got to see some original handcuffs and memorabilia, we got to see a small close-up magic show. The guy was pretty good and we were often left amazed, jaws agape.


Later that evening brought us some special plans. We had booked a Danube river cruise with dinner and traditional Hungarian singing and dancing. We decided specifically on an evening cruise to enjoy the sights all lit up.

Buda Castle


The food was really so-so (there was no kitchen on the boat, so it was just re-heated food) but we expected that from the reviews. The entertainment was great fun and excellent. But the views? They were 5 stars the whole way. The boat went up and down the same stretch of the river about 2 times each direction, so you had plenty of opportunity to get photos and views.

Sophie taking in the view of the Parliament building
The parliament in all its glory

(I don’t have any still photos of the entertainment, apparently I only took video clips to put on Instagram.)


Early on day 3 we went to what I was most looking forward to in the entire trip (next to the paprikas!)- the thermal baths!

Hungary is famous for its natural hot spring baths and there are about 67 in the entire country, and 5 in Budapest. We went to the Széchenyi thermal bath which is the largest medicinal bath in Europe. The bath is 109 years old, and according to its Wikipedia page, it is supplied by two hot springs that are 77°C and 74°C (the temperature in the pool the day we visited was 28°C). The components of this specific thermal water that make it medicinal are sulfate, magnesium, calcium, bicarbonate, and a significant amount of metaboric acid and floride.

Visiting the baths was important and special to me because of some family history: My great-grandfather (whom I never met) used to travel back to Hungary from Canada right into the 1960s and ’70s just to visit the baths because they were the only thing that would alleviate his arthritis pain. My mother then visited the baths in 2013 when she and my dad toured Hungary – they also visited where her father was born and my great-grandmother’s hometown, etc. So I felt that Sophie and I getting to visit Hungarian thermal baths was just two more generations of our family now getting sort of a Hungarian baptism!

We loved that the air outside was 9°C and the water was so warm, it made the experience so enjoyable. If this was July and it was 30° out, we sure wouldn’t be enjoying the water much. But just like all of our trip, we were so happy to have visited in February.
(I’ll point out here too, that most all traditional Hungarian food is very rich and hearty, warm food. Think stews and such – the kind of food that feels great to come in from the cold and eat to warm up. We loved eating this in February but wouldn’t want to be devouring it in July).

We left the baths after about an hour and a half. There were big signs saying it was advised you shouldn’t stay in them over 20 minutes and I also knew that due to my MS, I shouldn’t stay in hot water too long either. I really wanted to, as I always do in hot tubs, but I knew I’d regret it later. We had arrived just after 10am and there were some people there but no lines at all and no congestion. Leaving just before noon and we could see a small line just starting, and many more people in the changing areas – still nothing I would call a real crowd (probably a tiny fraction compared to their high capacity), but just know that morning is the best time to come.

After leaving the baths we decided to head over to the parliament area in the daytime. I did take photos of the beautiful, imposing parliament building but not very good ones. The building was so large and we were just too close to it (and couldn’t get further away due to already being right on the riverbank). Nothing could compare to the photos we took the night before on the river cruise, anyway.

However, there on the bank of the Danube, is a very sad and beautiful memorial to Hungarian Jews called ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’.

These shoes are actually statues in memorial of the Jews who were lined up on the banks of the river, told to remove their shoes and were shot in the backs, to fall into the river and let the water carry the bodies away. Shoes were valuable, you see, and the murderers wanted to keep them and not waste them.
The shoes looked incredibly real, like they had been left there yesterday and are just waiting for their owners to come back and claim them. They are all the 1940s style. You can see incredible detail in them, stitching and wrinkles or cracking leather. It is a really beautiful memorial and shouldn’t be missed, if you’re in Budapest.

After this memorial, I was really physically beat. I think the hot baths combined with the activity of the past few days was catching up with me and I really needed rest. I went back to the hotel and sent Eric to the House of Terror without me. Sophie, being a 13-year-old girl, decided to come with me and be lazy in the hotel room.

The House of Terror is a museum dedicated to chronicling the fascist and communist regimes in Hungary of the 20th century. Ironically, you can’t take any photos in it…

At last, for our final evening in Budapest, we had made reservations at a tiny restaurant, Retek Bistro, just around the corner from our hotel that we had passed on our very first walkabout in the city. It looked adorable, smelled delicious, and had like 4.8-star rating on Google! It was very small and you can only get in with reservations so luckily we were able to make a reservation online.

The little restaurant had the ambience of being in a Hungarian grandmother’s kitchen. The service was really wonderful (they brought over free appetisers before our meal and pálinka [Hungarian schnapps] to end the meal) and the food was out of this world. We knew that Hungarians liked to put sour cream on absolutely everything, which we weren’t particularly enamoured with; but at this place, it was strong garlic sour cream. This was like a whole new world for us and we now wanted garlic sour cream on everything!

Our flight home was early the next morning. This was a lovely, merry way to end our city-break in Budapest. Our bellies were stuffed full of good food and we were so happy to be in and to have experienced Budapest and Hungarian culture.