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.

Funchal, Madeira – Christmas in Paradise

Christmas 2021 loomed and was certain to be like no other. I knew I wouldn’t have the time to get back to Canada to be with family, but this would be the first Christmas since my mom had passed. As anyone who has lost a close loved-one can attest to, big holidays like this can be so hard. I really wanted to be with my dad and sister but since that couldn’t happen, I told Eric to get me out of our house and somewhere warm!

We settled on the tropical island of Madeira, part of an archipelago 700km off the coast of Africa and controlled by Portugal (~1000km from the coast of Lisbon). Here, we knew that Sophie and I could sit by the pool and relax, but Eric could also hike mountaintops and explore, as he gets antsy being still too long. First, we looked at renting beautiful whole-house airBnBs with heated pools and ocean views, but while looking, I came across the holiday packages at Jet2.com and was astounded at how comparable the prices were to a self-catering holiday. We could stay at a 5-star resort with 5 pools, 6 restaurants, spas, and wonderful service without having to grocery shop, cook, or drive ourselves! (This last point became increasingly more important as our trip went on). There was also entertainment, concierge service, and room service during the holiday!

(The view from our balcony)

There are many, many, times in our week’s vacation where we were thankful to have booked with a holiday provider and not be self-catered. The very first was during our flight to Madeira. We knew that weather on the island wasn’t supposed to be very good that day, but what can you do, eh? Unfortunately, the Funchal airport is actually one of the ten worst airport runways to land on in the world, especially during poor (windy) weather. We took off on time, but upon approaching destination, our pilot informed us that the airport was currently closed due to wind gusts in excess of 90mph and that we would circle in a hold pattern and hope it may open soon and we could land. Well, after an hour of circling, we had to abandon that plan and the pilot informed us we were being diverted to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, about an hour away.
Jet2 did a wonderful job of finding us accommodation for the night at a nice hotel – not just a crummy airport hotel but a resort hotel with pools and restaurants. They transported us and took care of us. More importantly, because we were with the holiday provider, we didn’t ever have to worry about contacting our hotel or other reservations in Madeira. If we had gone the self-catering route, we would have spent hours dealing with the airBnB host, the car rental company, any tour companies we booked, etc (and trying to do it all in Portuguese!).

Poolside in Tenerife. It was no where near as nice as the resort we had booked in Madeira, but it wasn’t an airport hotel and it was warmer than Madeira! We could relax by the pool and try to make the best of it.

After yet another day of travel and airports and planes (at least this flight was only an hour long), we finally made it to Madeira and realised how absolutely amazing our resort was. We had pre-booked a taxi to pick us up at the airport and take us to the hotel (another thing that we didn’t have to worry about rescheduling!) and with the 20-minute or so drive to the hotel I noted two main things. 1-The highways on Madeira are amazing; what a feat of infrastructure- weaving around, through, above, and below mountains. Cliffs on one side and ocean on the other, everywhere was scenic! And 2- As soon as you left the highway, the roads became about 45 degrees incline everywhere! I was immediately thankful that we (Eric) didn’t rent a car and have to get ourselves around this island. It was terrifying!

Example: In this photo taken from the cable car, you can see beautiful highway on the left, and then on the right, steep normal road that is NOT highway

I do not suggest to ANYONE to drive themselves around Madeira unless you are very, very well versed in driving manual transmission on steep hills on narrow European roads. Automatic transmissions are near unheard-of on the island because you need the manual transmission to gear-down while going down hills rather than braking or you would wear out your brakes every month. Sure, a lot of us say we know how to drive stick but if it’s been more than a few years and you weren’t doing it on steep roads, don’t bother. And throw in the tight European roads which is something else to get used to (I’ve lived here for 2.5 years and I still hate it and am not used to it, I can’t wait to get home to Canada and wide roads). Anyway, don’t be cocky about driving on this island unless it’s something you actually do daily.

Back to our resort- we stayed at the Porto Mare Hotel and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone or go back there myself. We had a small suite for the 3 of us, 2 bathrooms, comfortable beds (Eric and I essentially had 2 double beds beside each other, it was huge!), and a beautiful balcony with view. There were 5 pools at the resort but only 2 were indoors and heated. (The ones outside were pretty frigid in the December weather.) There were 4 restaurants, a buffet, and 2 bars to chose from. The food was awesome, we loved it. Service was fantastic everywhere we went, whenever we wanted anything. The resort grounds were what felt like a giant botanical garden, we could walk through these stunning gardens every day – even a special orchid garden the size of my house! Sophie particularly liked the little aviary with a few cockatiels and budgies. They were adorable and sweet to listen to (we could hear them sing from our balcony).



On our first day, we wanted to get our bearings in the town of Funchal. We took a cab into the old town and first visited the fruit market. They take their fruit and flowers very seriously, being a tropical island. It was stunning.

Then we did a touristy thing and bought tickets to go up the Funchal mountainside in a cable car. I’ve been in the Rocky Mountains and taken cable cars up mountains there as well as Sicily before but holy heck this was steep!!!! And it just kept going and going higher and higher! Apparently the cable car distance is 3200m and the mountain is 550m up.

Taken in the first 1/4 of our trip, so not that high up yet!

Then how to get back DOWN the mountain??? On the cable car again (which Sophie was afraid of)? Take a cab down the narrow switchback roads? (We watched them going up the mountain from the cable car and it did not look nice). Or should we take the traditional way down the mountain? Traditional wicker basket sledges (toboggans) have been used since the early 19th century to help people get down the mountain into town. Now, the baskets are each driven by 2 men in traditional white dress to get tourists down the mountain for fun. It looks crazy, going downhill so fast in a wicker basket, but those 2 drivers have lot of control and are frequently even pulling us along.


The next day, Eric was looking forward to the hiking he had planned while Sophie and I were looking forward to a day relaxing by the pool. He got a company to pick him up at the hotel at 0630 to take him to the top of one of the tallest mountains on the island. It is common to watch the sunrise here, as it is above the cloudline and can make for spectacular views; however, not so much in December. He didn’t get to see the sunrise, unfortunately, as they were all in the cloud, but then he had an enjoyable and beautiful 8km hike from one mountain peak to the next.

Ah, hell no!
Good for him! Not my idea of a fun morning.

Eric took a day of rest the day after his hike with lots of hot-tub time and in the evening we went into old town Funchal as there was supposed to be an annual Christmas market. We were picturing Christmas markets like other places in Europe, with booths full of homemade goodies and handicrafts, along with lots to eat and drink. Alas, this was only a single block lined with booths selling various forms of alcohol, mostly Poncha, the traditional liqueur from Madeira. It was essentially a giant block-long street party. (We needed to show both proof of vaccination AND negative tests to get in!).

We ended up walking through the streets of old Funchal and weren’t expecting it, but it turns out that we didn’t know it or expect it, but Funchal is known for and amazing at Christmas lights displays! All over the city, we were absolutely amazed. Lights were everywhere and not just tossed like usual, but meticulously placed and complete art. Every street and lane was a different theme and set-up, looking like it had been done by designers. Our breath was continuously taken away.

It wasn’t the evening of a Christmas market that we were expecting, but it was still a very Christmas-ey evening viewing all the lights and we had a lovely time.

Next morning, we woke early (not as early as Eric did for his hike!) as we were being picked up for a private day-tour of the island by Hit The Road Madeira. Choosing a private day-tour like this isn’t necessarily the cheapest option, but it is the best way to get the most for our money due to my accessibility needs. Our tour guide, Jeff, may have been used to clients who want a wild 4×4 drive to the most remote areas of the island, but he was happy to quickly adapt to our needs and wants and took us to areas I wouldn’t have to walk too far, but could still see some great lookouts and sights. He was so knowledgeable about the history and ecology of the island and we learned a lot along the way.

First up, we went to Cabo Girao, a glass-bottom platform on the edge of one of the highest cliffs in Europe. (580 metres!) Gulp.

There was no getting Sophie and me on that glass floor. Nope.

Throughout the day, our guide ended up taking us pretty much clockwise right around the island. It was absolutely stunning. He learned quickly that Sophie and I couldn’t stand the very (very, very) steep and narrow roads and to stick to the bigger roads and he was happy to oblige. He stopped at all the great lookouts along the way (the kind of little ones that had we been driving ourselves, we would have driven right past without noticing).

Taking a private tour meant I didn’t have to stress my body to keep up with a group, or go places that were inaccessible or difficult for me. Yes, this is another example of how a disabled person ends up having to pay more in life to do essentially the same things (pay more money for a private guide vs the much-cheaper group tour) but I was definitely comfortable all day- great job Hit The Road Madeira 5 stars!

Being away for Christmas in a Catholic country meant planning ahead. Well before we left, we booked dinner reservations for not only Christmas day but also Christmas Eve (as we realised it would be a bigger holiday than Christmas night). It’s lucky we did this because from what we heard, everywhere was packed and no one could find a reservation Christmas Eve! We had a fabulous dinner at the Italian restaurant at our resort where they put out Christmas crackers and poured sparkling wine.

Cheers!

On Christmas Day, we opened the few, small gifts that we had packed and went to the fab hotel breakfast buffet, and then spent the day in the pool. It was perfect!


On the day after Christmas, we headed to the mall down the road in the morning, which was beautiful, half open-air. Sophie had received some euros as a gift early in the week but hadn’t spent them and I’m pretty sure they were burning a hole in her pocket. She found a few articles of clothing and fashion to buy and we went back to the hotel for an afternoon swim.

Overall, this was the perfect Christmas adventure getaway. It was exactly what we wanted, a combination of a warm and relaxing seaside holiday while still being able to explore a beautiful new location, an old European city, and a new culture.


One of the many awesome decorations in the hotel