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.
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!?
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).
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.
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.
(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.
Ah, the City of Love! What better place to escape to after 20 months of pandemic isolation stuck in the UK?!? Especially as post-lockdown crowds are a tiny fraction of what they used to be. Now, there are no big cruise ships (there used to be sometimes tens every day!), and minimal day-trippers. Come evening, the city seems almost deserted – And we loved it!
We arrived at the airport around 5:30pm – our flight was late, we were tired, etc. Luckily, we had arranged for private water taxi to transfer us to our hotel in Venice. The airport is on the mainland and it is usually quite a trek to get actually IN to Venice from it – you can wait for the crowded and long waterbus – that would have eventually got us in to Venice around 8pm for around €20 each (such a headache!). Or we could have taken a bus over land to the main entrance/bridge to the city for about €8 each. We did neither of these options and went full comfort and speed and pre-booked ourselves a private water taxi to take us right to the entrance of our hotel. They run at about €130. But I didn’t have to do any walking, we didn’t have to lug our bags, and we didn’t have to search a foreign city as the sun was going down (and we were told Google maps doesn’t work great in the city!) to find our hotel. It was perfect and so worth it.
As it happened, the day we travelled to Venice was also my birthday! So luckily, we got to our beautiful hotel (Splendid Venice), checked-in, and then were able to get out for a lovely dinner at a decent hour. We knew there’d be a thousand restaurants and we’d be overwhelmed by choice our first time out, so we asked our hotel concierge for a recommendation for good pasta and ambience and we were not disappointed. (Incidentally, concierge also noticed it was my birthday on check-in and left a card and gift of biscotti in my room for me while we were out at dinner! Wonderful service!)
When we awoke on our first morning, we had to go to a pharmacy and get Sophie a Covid test, as she needed a ‘Green Pass’ for Italy (even though she is double-vaccinated, the UK doesn’t provide QR code passes for kids under 16, and Italy requires them for kids over 12, so she needed to have a negative test every 48 hours instead- UGH). It was €22 and a pain to go get, but only really 30 minutes out of our day once we figured it all out. Once we had her Green Pass, we decided to head to Piazza San Marco to see the biggest/main tourist sites that we wanted to see in Venice – the Basilica and the Doge’s palace.
Before we left home, Eric almost bought ‘Skip the Line’ passes for these attractions. Once we saw the line-ups in St. Mark’s square, he regretted not buying them. But both when he was contemplating buying them and regretting not buying them, I just shook my cane in his face and reminded him that I’m handicapped and this is Europe! Here in Europe (I do NOT find the same thing in North America, which is actually awful), they respect the fact that I use a walking cane and can’t stand in a line for a long time. So we just walk to the front of the line and wave down a security guard/gate agent and ask for the handicapped entrance. Sometimes there is a different entrance, sometimes they just open the barrier and let us through ahead of any huge line there may be. We still had to go through all the Covid/temperature/Green Pass checks – I just didn’t have to wait in the long line. Maybe it makes the people at the back of the line bitter and mad but hey, I’d rather wait in line and not have MS. Anyway – point being, if you’re reading this because you, like me, have any accessibility issues, make sure you know that you do NOT have to wait in lines in Europe and just be bold, walk up to the front of the line and ask to go through! Sometimes it feels awkward, but we’ve done it everywhere and literally never been told no! (Always have your handicapped parking pass available for proof, as sometimes they require it, like most places in Spain did, but then were happy to help).
Outside the palace and basilica in San Marco’s square, because I had to have a nice sit and rest, we decided to take the moment and splurge on a ‘snack’ atCaffèFlorian, the oldest and- just about- most well-known cafe in Venice. And when I say splurge… I mean, the most expensive coffee, macarons, and gelato that we’ve ever had and ever will have. But the ambience of sitting there in that beautiful setting, being serenaded by a live piano band, and people-watching in the square, was all worth it. We really loved it!
Our next day in Venice, we had a private tour booked to head to the islands of Murano and Burano. Venice Lagoon is full of many, many islands. Some of them derelict, some of them for cemeteries, some for agriculture, etc. They once even had sick (leper) islands. Hundreds of years ago, when the craft of glassmaking was being honed, the Venetians were afraid of the risk of fire in their close and cramped city, so they ‘banished’ all glassmakers to the island of Murano to keep their fires in one spot there. Really, this just made good sense! However, hundreds of years later, the glassmaking and blowing have passed down in the same families, each family still has their own recipe, techniques, Masters, and secrets. It’s an amazing tradition. We bought a beautiful set of hand-blown drinking tumblers to forever remember our holiday.
We also went to Burano, which was a traditional fishing village where the men all left every morning to go fish and the women stayed behind to cook, clean, etc. The women behind started to take up a form of hand-crafting beautiful lace. This was another traditional craft passed down through generations, from mother to daughter. However, this part of the tour ended up getting somewhat pushy of a salespitch trying to sell us €1500 tablecloths (absolutely beautiful and worth no less, but totally out of my price range and just not my style). So we moved on and enjoyed the stunning colour and beauty that is the tiny island of Burano. The official websites say that all the houses of Burano are so brightly coloured so that the fishermen could find the right house in the foggy, dark mornings to steer their boat to. Our private, sassy, tour guide says local lore was that housewives were more inclined to paint their house a bright colour very different than the neighbours so that her drunk husband would stumble into the right house –and more importantly the right bed– at night. She said all the local islanders look a little too related for a reason, haha!
The benefit of us taking a private tour is that the guide went at my pace. She was great and recognised when I’d been standing too long and couldn’t walk any farther, so rather than one section of the tour that she usually walks, she got the water taxi and we did it by canal so we could still see the whole area, but I could sit. Also as we came to Burano, after a couple hours at Murano, I knew that Sophie’s blood sugar would be starting to go lower as noon (normal lunchtime) was upon us. The Italians eat on a different schedule and our tour wasn’t set to end for a few more hours, and I was guessing lunch wasn’t scheduled in. However, I just mentioned to our guide that we needed to find somewhere to eat (I didn’t want to just feed Sophie Skittles the whole time) and why and she was fantastic. She recommended a great little restaurant, found out the fresh special of the day was lasagna, so both Sophie and I ordered that and it turned out to be the best meal of our whole week in Venice. Best lasagna of my life! Once lunch was done, we were back on our way and our guide just accommodated us into the tour. It was perfect.
Our last day in Venice, we just wanted to be. I had so far enjoyed getting around and seeing Venice so much, the alleys, the views, the window shopping, the food! So we said let’s just take off and get lost, eat when and where we want, amble where we want, and let Venice be our guide.
The only thing that changed this plan slightly was our guide from the day before gave us a booking for the rooftop terrace at the T Fondaco, the posh mall right next to the Rialto Bridge and the grand canal. The terrace has to be booked weeks in advance for only 15-minute intervals, which we didn’t want to commit ourselves to weeks before we came. But to accept the booking only the day before, we thought that was great! The guide had an extra booking and gave it to us (it’s free, just very limited and hard to get) and we got to go have a fabulous view of Venice and the Grand Canal.
We decided to take yet another sit and stop in the sun at the foot of the Rialto Bridge here and have some snacks (bruschetta) and a spritz -famous in Venice, the spritz is a traditional cocktail of prosecco, digestive bitters (Aperol or Campari), and soda water, garnished with a slice of orange and an olive. We drank a lot of spritzes!
Then as we started to walk deep into the lanes of Venice to get ourselves lost, we took the opportunity of being away from the crowds to take a few great Insta-worthy shots.
I mean, we couldn’t pass up these amazing opportunities!
We also walked by and stopped in at the famous Acqua Alta Liberia (bookshop) that regularly floods when the tide is very high, so all their books are stored in gondolas and tubs, along with the higher shelves! It supposedly also usually has many cats all over, but we didn’t see a single one.
Lastly we decided to go all-tourist and do the necessary gondola ride. What’s a visit to Venice without one? Our beautiful hotel room was right over a quiet canal and there’d been gondolas going down it all week, now it was our turn. We were nowhere near our hotel – in fact we had no idea where we were – but I was ready for a sit and we saw a gondola stand so we grabbed a boat and went for a ride. It was wonderful.
It was really the perfect way to finish our time in Venice.
Overall, I loved Venice just so much. I think it’s my favourite European city yet. Maybe I say that every time but I was just in love. I was amazed that the city even existed, that it was just built on top of a lagoon and that it still exists 1600 years later! It seems like it should fall down any moment, like in a constant state of beautiful decay, but it is still a thriving city and still holds up to tens of thousands living there and tens of thousands more visiting every day. As far as accessibility goes (albeit we had the extreme privilege of being able to afford the easiest accessible options), Venice has been one of the most accessible cities for my disability that I’ve visited in a long time. Its extremely small and compact size helped, along with how flat it was. All the bridges (many stairs up and then down) weren’t exactly easy and they wouldn’t be easy for someone dependent on a walker or wheelchair, but the roadways were all so flat. No climbing hills like here in Bristol! And no walking miles and miles just to take a metro 3 stops like in Paris or London. I personally found getting around Venice tiring at times, but perfect because I could go directly to where we wanted and be there in 5-10 minutes of walking, which is just within my limit.
We ate some amazing food, had some amazing company, and saw some amazing things. Our 3 days were just the perfect little citybreak.
Well my dad came all the way to England from Canada to visit us! He’s done almost half a dozen invasive Covid tests, he quarantined, and then we were finally able to start showing him our new and current home! We’ve been doing lots of little day trips around the area and then we planned a big longer trip down to the very southern tip of Cornwall for the bank holiday weekend for some fun in the sun and family time. I could write a whole blog post about each individual thing we did in Cornwall, but I’ll try and just touch on what we did and put it all in one as an example of what can be done as a fun multi-generational long-weekend in Cornwall!
The first stop we made on the way to our destination in Cornwall was a place I’ve been wanting to see since we got here in 2019, Tintagel Castle. Tintagel has an association with the legends of King Arthur and is believed to be where his famous Knights of the Round Table were. When the castle was originally built in the 14th century, there was a natural stone bridge linking the two sides of the castle, but it fell into the sea about 500-600 years ago. No human had crossed at that point again until 2019 when they rebuilt this beautiful cantilever (meaning a suspension bridge that does not meet at ALL in the middle!) bridge where the original bridge once was.
It. was. terrifying.
Please take 10 minutes and watch this video by English Heritage about how the bridge was made. The floor of the bridge is made out of sheets of slate from a nearby quarry but they’re put in this way, so they don’t become a skating rink when wet:
That all seems well and fine until they shift 1cm under your foot when you take a step and you feel like the entire bridge it about the fall out underneath you. OMG!
But the views, the views from every which angle, were spectacular-
After a beautiful afternoon in the sun with the sea air, we went on further south to our rental house for the evening. We specifically chose a place that could make 3 different generations happy and had a beautiful view of the sea and a hot tub too!
On day 2, we decided to head towards, and past, Penzance. We learned that the roads get incredibly narrow and tight this far south in Cornwall. Usually only room for one car at a time but yet they are considered 2-way roads, so you’re constantly watching for oncoming traffic, and needing to deek into the nonexistent shoulder, or if you’re very lucky, a small lay-by, while you pass each other. The British drivers seemed to have no trouble with this. This was normal for them. The Canadians who are more used to having large roads with large shoulders and more space in our country than we know what to do with, were a little more nervous!
Once we got to each location we found, though- it was so worth it! First off, we came to a beach in Porthcurno.
The water was cold, but the beach was sandy and the sun was warm. We didn’t have our beach clothes or anything for a beach day (not even towels), we were just there for the views!
Next, we as we were driving along the nail-biting roads, I notice a circle of stones in the field next to us. Obviously, other people knew about it because there was a very small car park there so Eric pulled over quickly and we got out to investigate. We quickly looked at Google Maps and learned that they were the Merry Maidens stone circle, circa 2500-1500BC. We were the only ones there and it was so neat to just stumble upon ancient history and walk amongst it.
After that more calm and idle stop, we needed to drive into Mousehole. Oh, Mousehole….
Mousehole was a tiny little idyllic fishing village that had about one bike lane in and one bike lane out. Really. Yet those bike lanes are being used by vehicles both large and small in both directions. Really. One vehicle can barely fit in some of those roads but they were okay with making them 2-way roads? We totally got caught – on a hill – with oncoming traffic and no where to go. Rock wall on one side, building on another. Took about 20 mins and a lot of stress, but Eric managed us out of it. No scratches on the car, either! Beer at lunch was well-deserved!
After Mousehole and the hours of intense driving, we decided to take it easy and go ‘home’ for the day.
This was only about a 10-minute drive from where we were staying so it wasn’t that hard to get to in the morning. Sometimes you can walk right to the island over an underwater causeway if the tide is way out (thus, it wouldn’t be underwater), but we very purposely looked up the tide schedule because we wanted to take a boat over. It’s about 1 km to the island and we knew we’d have to save all my legs’ energy to get UP that mountain and not waste it in the walk TO the mountain. So luckily, the tide was in at 10am (when I have fresh ‘morning legs’ anyway) and we happily spent the £2 each to take the boat over to the mountain. The climb up to the castle was pretty steep and hard in some parts, literally scrambling over stones and boulders – not just a walk up stairs. Once we got up to the castle, they spoke of how many royals had visited, including The Queen in 2013, and my only thought was – how??? How the heck did The Queen, at about 85, get up there? Holy Heck! Queen Victoria and Charles and Camilla have also visited. How?
Anyway, we really had a grand time. It was absolutely beautiful. The views, the interior, the history. If you’re ever in Cornwall, this should not be missed!! (And it turned out to be quite fortuitous that we went early, because it was getting *SO* busy by the time we left at noon). I can’t imagine how swamped it would be by the time everyone could walk across.
On our last day, we checked out of our rental caravan early and decided to stop at Falmouth for breakfast. It was a bank holiday and the streets were quiet. Most businesses were closed but it was a pretty little town to walk through.
After breakfast in Falmouth, we were off to our booked entry slot at the Eden Project. If you’ve never heard of the Eden Project (the world’s biggest greenhouse), please click on the link and learn about it! It was really, really amazing. It’s a conservationist project in an old quarry in Cornwall where they grow and cultivate species of plants from all over, in the hopes of teaching and guiding new generations about the importance of our one earth and everything that it provides.
And it sure was beautiful.
Incidentally, I will give a HUGE shout-out to Eden’s accessibility team because we’ve been to a lot of museums and castles and places where we know they have wheelchairs for use on site and we ask for them, and we have seen the entire spectrum of helpful staff from nice people to staff who almost needed a picture of a wheelchair drawn for them and then needed to call their manager and find out where they were stored… yes, really. At Eden, we were so helpfully lead to the Blue Badge (handicapped) parking by the attendants, and then surprised to find manual wheelchairs parking in dry bays right at the handicapped parking lot. Convenient! Then when we got inside, because I had read on their website that they had a few motorised wheelchairs available (which I’ve never seen at any museum before!!!), I just asked at the front desk and was lucky enough to snag the last one! They kindly showed me how to use it, it had been fully cleaned and charged and was ready to go. As far as accessible museum visits go, this one got 5+ stars!! I would have never, ever been able to walk all around the whole site, as far as we did, and this way I was fully able to enjoy our visit with some independence.
After our beautiful visit to the Eden Project, it was time to hit the road home. We had a fabulous few days in Cornwall, we couldn’t have ordered more perfect weather, nothing but blue skies and warm days. We got to see some really fantastic sights, neat history, beautiful architecture, and do things we’d never get the opportunity to do elsewhere. We also made some fantastic memories with important, much-needed family time.