Wednesday 25 July 2012

Doing Dusseldorf in a Day (Or Rather a Few Hours)

It was much cheaper for me to fly to Los Angeles from Dusseldorf, Germany than Brussels, Belgium, so Adam and I headed out to the train station.  He gets a good friend award as he carried a big chunk of my 100lb. luggage in and out of train! With only a few hours in Dusseldorf, we dropped off our suitcases at the Grand City Hotel Dusseldorf Konigsallee (formerly Four Points) before exploring the city.  The hotel was classy enough in itself, but the complimentary sodas and waters put it on the great hotels list (four free drinks!). 

An international financial center, Dusseldorf often gets looked over by tourists for more popular cities such as Munich or Berlin.  However, I feel that its smaller charm with its fairs to nightlife is one of the reasons it's an attractive destination! 

 Town Hall Place Near City Hall

We walked towards the Rhine River to stroll down the Promenade (a highly recommended walk during sunset!) and get a quick glimpse of the Rhine Tower.  The tallest building in Dusseldorf at 170m, the tower also holds the largest digital clock in the world.  If we had more time, I would have loved to explore it, but our current mission?  Find a fancy place to eat that's close!

We soon made our way to Old Town and settled on Santiago Bistro.  Sitting on the cafe tables outside, we were able to people watch while enjoying the German sun.  Our waiter only spoke Spanish and German and we only spoke English and French, so it made ordering our meal very interesting!  A big hand to Dusseldorf; however, as a Wednesday night can bring out everyone in the city to enjoy a night out!

Enjoying Spanish food and people watching at Santiago Bistro

 The week-long layover in Europe on my way back from Africa was indeed a good trip, but tomorrow? Time for this girl to go back to the US after twenty-five months away from home!

Sunset from my plane ride home!

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Things to Do in Luxurious Luxembourg

Not realizing that Luxemboug was actually three hours away from Brussels, we began our day-trip out of the country.  Would I recommend spending a night in Luxembourg?  Yes. Though would I also recommend the day-trip for those that want to stay in their cheap hotel with Brussels as their home point?  Yes.

Luxembourg's architecture was extremely unique relative to the types I've observed across Europe.  It's a mix of old versus new as the city's architecture includes the Treveri Celtic tribe works from 1st century BC, Roman ruins, castles, churches, and modern-day financial buildings. 

Luxembourg's unique architure

A tourist office (with free map!) was located right at the train station making our travel planning convenient.  Before eating a caprice salad, we walked across The Passerelle (a.k.a. The Viaduct Bridge) which connects the city center to the train station.  Be sure to take in the view of the Petrusse Valley!

View of Petrusse Valley from The Passerelle Bridge

A visit to Luxembourg City would not be complete without seeing the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Casemates!  Located in the old historical district, one finds a rocky castle-like cliff tower sitting over the River Alzette. In 963, Count Siegfried built a grand castle to protect his property.  The casemates, underground tunnels below the castles, were created and modernized by the Spaniards in 1644.  Here, one can explore a life-size human cave full of twists and turns. The lighting especially makes the Casemates into a surreal neon glow space.  

Standing above and walking within the tunnel galleries of the Casemates

We soon hopped on a bus to St. Martin's Winery in Remich. The peaceful city sits on a port and holds a certain still charm.  Perhaps I will have a summer house here one day!

Remich, Luxembourg

The wine tour brought us through 1km of traditional and modern wine cellars and ended with a champagne tasting.  Great deal for only 5euros!

Winery tour and champagne tasting at St. Martins

 Train ride view from Luxembourg back to Belgium

I unfortunately left my leftover pizza slices (the only food option that we could afford in Remich) at the local bus station, but it just gave me all the more reason to order McDonald's for the third time this week.  Delicious!

Monday 23 July 2012

Boating in Bruges and Blankenberge's Sand Sculture Festival

After dropping off my broken sandal at the cobbler, Adam and I headed off to Blankenberge and Bruges. Note: ALWAYS pack at least two pairs of easily accessible shoes!  Otherwise, you could end up like me and wear traditional African sandals (for decoration only) all over Europe!

First stop was to see the Sprookjeswereld Sand Sculpture Festival in Blankenberg. Here, thirty-eight professional artists have hand-crafted millions of kilograms of sand into larger-than-life sculptures.  There were only three large rooms to the festival, but the Disney and storybook themes made it a sight to see!

The gorgeous and intricate sculptures of Blankenberge's Sprookjeswereld Sand Sculpture Festival

Blankenberge is a nice port town, but we had to soon backtrack on the train to Bruges for the 3pm demonstration show at The Diamond Museum.  After being lost for half an hour, we found out that the 3pm show occurred at noon!  The complimentary diamond that attendees receive was literally no bigger than half a millimeter, so I didn't feel too bad about missing out on anything.  

Bruges, a significant economic center because of its port, is considered a "canal city," so off on a boat ride we went! Though the half hour boat rides attract only tourists, how can you visit Venice without riding in a gondola?  And if anything, it's worth it to see the below statue putting in contact lenses.

Floating through the canals of Bruges

Sunday 22 July 2012

Local and Touristy Things to Do in Brussels, Belgium (Part 2)

One of the most popular attractions to see in Brussels is the Manneken Pis a.k.a. "Pissing Boy" statue. Yes, you read that right!  I wasn't particularly inclined to see it, but Adam insisted that I pay at least one visit.

The bronze statue stands over 60cm tall and has created quite a bit of a stir in terms of urban legends.  Some say that the infant was a lord and his troops put him into a basket to "attract and distract" the enemy.  Another legend describes a missing child of a merchant who became lost and was soon found in a garden in the following position.  My favorite part of the statue? Watching the many tourists come to photograph it!

The infamous Manneken Pis statue and the several dozen tourists who are excited to see it

We soon made our way over to George Henri Park for the Brusselicious Festival of PiQniQ!  Each summer, Brussels holds Sunday picnics at various parks throughout the city.  A free jazz concert is provided while picnickers can buy 12euro lunch packs that consist of salami, cheese, bread, apples, salad, yogurt, and two complimentary glasses of wine - great deal in my opinion!

Our official picnic basket from the Brusselicious PiQniQ Festival

The family-friendly event itself was great (kids could also make kites), but I loved the fact that it brought us beyond a "touristy" experience and into a very local venue. George Henri Park is located in a very suburban area of the city, so we walked up and down sidewalks of homes and spent the day with Belgian families. 

We had a planned to have a fancier dinner, so we walked down Rue des Bouchers as it's know as "Brussels Belly" due to it's many restaurants and cafes. The affordable Lobster House Ecalier won us over as the host offered to throw in some champagne to us for our business. 

Enjoying a seafood dinner at Lobster House Ecalier on Rue des Bouchers

Saturday 21 July 2012

Local and Touristy Things to Do in Brussels, Belguim (Part 1)

Hello Europe!  After my two-year Peace Corps service in Africa, I took a week-long layover in Europe on the way home to the States. First stop: Brussels, Belgium!

Chocolate, French, waffles, and good food and friends?  Good deal for me!

After my buddy, Adam Persing, picked me up at Brussels Airport, we carried my 100lbs. of luggage to Hotel Eurostar Grand Place, an affordable and clean hotel just five minutes from the city center.

Tip: Looking to book a hotel?  Check out TravelShark, an online travel company with an insane database of lodgings. I had trouble finding affordable hotels with TripAdvisor, Expedia, etc. but TravelShark saved us!

First stop was the Brussel's "Hero" statue at the Grand Palace.  The statue symbolizes Everhard 't Serclaes who rescued Brussels in 1356.  Tradition says if you touch the elbow, it's good luck!

Touching the elbow of the "Hero" statue will give you good luck!
We swung by the Tourism Office which gave us great information about the day's festivities and information/coupons to the very cute Angora Arts and Crafts Fair.  The fair, just a few meters away from the Grand Place, featured local artisans selling hand-crafted goods from scarves to candles.

One of the must-see sites in Brussels is the Atomium Museum! The building's unique shape draws thousands each year as it's "neither tower, nor pyramid, a little bit cubic, a little bit spherical, half-way between sculpture and architecture, a relic of the past with a determinedly futuristic look." 

 The impressive Atomium Museum from the 1950s is a one-of-a-kind sight! 
I wasn't too impressed with the inside of the museum (unless you really love learning about water), but I did enjoy how the museum did bring up the issue of clean water access (or lack there of) in developing countries.

Part of the water exhibition inside the Atomium Museum.  This displays villagers in Africa.

After a quick photoshoot, we rushed back to the city to see the 4pm chocolate-making show at Planete Chocolat.  The hands-on chocolate demonstration was interesting enough in itself, but the chocolate samples and hot chocolate made it even greater.  And yes, everything was delicious!

 Chocolate-making demonstration at Planete Chocolat

Since we were lucky enough to enjoy Belgium during their National Day (i.e. Independence Day), we headed off to Parc de Bruxelles.  Like Central Park in New York, the area provides a peaceful oasis away from the city's noises and hosts a myriad of activities yearly. Today's festivities included rock climbing, face painting, fighter jet riding (no joke),  dog racing, and sumo wrestling!

One of the many statues found in Brussels Park

 Brussels Park sumo-wrestling during National Day

We planned the rest of the trip back at the hotel and then headed out for a delicious pho dinner before watching the day's fireworks.  Excellent first day in Brussels!

Friday 20 July 2012

The Official Peace Corps Graduation: End-of-Service Gong Out

Peace Corps graduation today!  Two years of service complete and I am officially a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer!  

The next step?  I will jump on a plane to spend a week layover in Belgium and then HOME!  Thank you to everyone that followed my Peace Corps adventures.  I guess this will go back to a blog about my travel adventures now :)

Saturday 14 July 2012

Peace Corps Goodbye - The Final Weeks

A former Peace Corps Volunteer told me to really appreciate the final moments living in my community as they are the sweetest moments of one's service.  He was right.

Many PCVs tend to only inform their closest friends that they are leaving as if word gets around that the American is moving, thefts can often occur at the last moment.  Though I understand this practice, it was important for me to make sure that all loose ends were closed and nobody felt surprised or disappointed that I didn't let them know. I spent these last few weeks running around not only wrapping up projects and logistics, but giving photos/presents/clothes (I had way too much stuff to take home!) and of course, saying goodbye.  People couldn't believe that two years had already passed; nor could I.

Alot happened this last week especially.  My replacement(s) came, my community host cried, my Tae Kwon Do instructor woke up from his coma. There were surprise goodbye parties and planned parties with gift given to me after gift.  I don't know how I will ever thank the community of Ngaoundere for opening its heart to me these last two years.

I will miss this.  See below for my final goodbyes - I still can't believe the amount of gifts that I received including a snake-skinned purse and an official "talking stick."