Friday, February 17, 2017

Bruges and Ghent Day Trip

Bruges. Bruges Photo Point.During our latest November vacation to Europe our longest stay was in Brussels — 4 nights and almost 5 days since the ride from Paris takes only 1 hour. Our 10th wedding anniversary — November 23rd — also happened to fall on that stay in Brussels.

Street of Bruges.The reason why we made the stay in Brussels longer than in other cities and to make our anniversary stand out more we planned to take a side trip to a pair of old Belgium cities — Bruges and Ghent.

Streets of Ghent.As with all our side-trips there was a slight fear that we might flake out and not make it as happens with about half of our planned trips of such kind. In our overseas vacations we managed to keep our trip to Miyajima Island in Japan and we rented a car for a day to drive to Pisa in Italy. Yet we didn’t make it to Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany nor did we visit Toledo while in Spain. Luckily us skipping out wasn’t the case here.

Streets of Bruges.What made this trip especially easy was the fact that trains running to Bruges and Ghent originate from Brussels Central Station which was located right across a tiny square from the entrance to our hotel — extremely convenient.

Our train tickets.I did a little bit of research beforehand and knew that we could buy an open “via” ticket — no specific time — which would allow us to break our trip in two on the same ticket. In other words we could go to Bruges, get off at Ghent on our way back if we felt like it and get back on the train to finish the trip off. And this whole privilege ended up costing us only a couple of extra euros.

Bruges train station.We were definitely set on seeing Bruges which was the farthest of the two cities and it also was older than Ghent. I wasn’t sure if we were going to stop at Ghent at all and neither was Alёna. So we got on a train and in a little more than an hour were standing at Bruges train station.

Streets of Ghent.The unfortunate thing for us was that it was the only day of our whole vacation when it was really raining. When we left Brussels in the morning it seemed like it would be a nice day, bus alas, it wasn’t. In fact it was raining to hard that we had to find a store to acquire a pair of umbrellas. But overall walking through an old town and it’s narrow empty streets and rain soaked alleys ended up being quite romantic.

Bruges central square.When we got closer to the center we stepped inside Sint-Salvator Cathedral for a couple of minutes, but it was pretty bleak inside compared to some of the other cathedrals we have seen in Europe. And soon after we were on the central square of Bruges which had a good number of tourists all over it. However the rain was still strong, so we didn’t walk around too much.

Belfry of Bruges.Instead we decided to climb to the top of Belfry of Bruges. It’s 83 meters tall and it takes 366 steps to get to the top. But the views from the top were magnificent, as expected, including the main squire right below. I also spotted some waterfront from the top to which we walked to and took some nice shots. It seems that it actually is a pretty popular place for photography.

View from the top of Belfry.After the tower we ate lunch at some Italian place and then the rain was done. So we did walk through those streets and numerous and numerous chocolateries.

Waffle on a stick.I’m not a fan of any sweets, but we bought Alёna a waffle on a stick and bought a pair of artisan chocolate bars for our kids — white chocolate for Arosha as he doesn’t like dark chocolate and dark for Anюta. I also liked how chocolate looked when it was made in a form of rusty nuts, bolts and pliers of all kinds.

Artisan chocolate.That was our visit to Bruges. We started to walk back to the train station trying to take a different route through more old quite streets. And at some point we just stood on one of those tiny streets making out — it was our 10th anniversary after all.

10th wedding anniversary!We got on a train to Brussels feeling ready to go back to our hotel. But then we though — why are we so set on skipping Ghent? It was only around 5pm and we had a ton of time to stop by there as well. Both of us felt kind of happy that suddenly decided to visit it — again, not sure why both of us were sure that we won’t make it to Ghent.

Streets of Ghent.We checkout out the map and went towards the old center of the city. It took us about 40 minutes at a decent pace to get there. We went though the usual streets of Ghent, looking at people going about their business, returning home from their day of work. When we were getting closer to the center the sun was gone, the streets got tinier and lights from all the trams running along those streets made everything look really cozy.

Ghent's main square.We walked around the main squire taking some pictures of Saint Nicholas’ Church and Het Belfort van Gent set against a dark blue sky. Sadly by now it was too late for us to climb the tower. We spent some time admiring the old structures and all the atmosphere of this place and set back to the train station.

Saint Nicholas’ Church.We also saw that there was a ton of trams running all around the city and it turned one of those runs directly back to the train station. So we hopped onto it, bought the tickets from the driver and were back on a train station soon after. Catching a train to Brussels was also very easy and soon we were back at our home away from home. We were so tired that we just went to our executive lounge for a free dinner. It was a good day.

Streets of Ghent.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls. Both sides.We arrived at Niagara Falls, Canada via Rainbow Bridge. There was a long wait line of cars for passport check, and children were getting a little stir-crazy, but as always we survived with only minor damage to our nervous systems.

Our hotel. DoubleTree Fallsview Resort and Spa.We stayed at DoubleTree Fallsview Resort and Spa. It is the same exact hotel where we stayed with Daniel and his parents last time we visited this town. We got a nice room at high floor, albeit one level below the executive one.

Us in Niagara Falls.We were pretty hungry by the time we got there, so we decided to have a light lunch at the hotel’s restaurant. The restaurant was quiet and empty, and the lunch food that we ordered was not bad, with the exclusion of Caesar Salad. I think once I started making it at home, restaurant versions with their bottled dressings got much less satisfying.

On a ship to the falls.After lunch we headed for the falls. They were a relatively short walk away from our hotel. It was cold-ish outside, but bright and sunny. To our surprise, the boat ride underneath the falls was running, and Arosha REALLY wanted to go. What do good parents do when their five year old is bubbling with need to go into the cold mist of giant waterfalls? Of course they do exactly as he asks!

Red raincoats.Since it was so early in the season, the line was very short, and we had hardly spent any time waiting for the ride. Each one of us got a red disposable raincoat, which we put on right away. In fact, we put two of those on Anюta (one was smaller, one was bigger) to make sure she’ll stay dry. We all enjoyed this little adventure. When we were near a big waterfall, the mist turned into a full fledged pouring rain, but luckily, it did not last too long.

Inside the casino.After the ride, we walked along the waterfront, admiring the views and smelling first daffodils. For dinner we decided to go to the buffet in one of the casinos, but they were really strict and did not let us pass through the casino to the restaurant on the account of children. For me it was quite unusual after the family-friendly atmosphere in Las Vegas, but oh well.

Alёna and Arosha.We wondered around the shopping area attached to the casinos, and ended up going to the Chinese buffet. The food was very mediocre, but they had sushi, and Arosha stuffed himself up with them. There was also a pretty decent variety of vegetables (not so with meat), so I did not left the place hungry either.

Whirlpool on Niagara.We started the following day with the trip to the Niagara whirlpool. The day was nice and sunny again. There is a cable car running over the whirlpool in season, but it was not open yet. I am not sure if we would have taken a ride anyhow, since to me it seemed like a pretty scary endeavor.

Ride over whirlpool was closed for the season.When we were in Niagara Falls area last time, we visited the Butterfly Conservatory. I remember being very impressed by it, and we wanted to share this experience with the children. They’ve been to similar thing during our visit to the Museum of Natural History, but their butterfly exhibit was tiny compared to this conservatory.

Arosha hoping that a butterfly will land on his hand.Arosha and Anюta both liked the butterflies, although at some point Anna ran to us all excited holding a big butterfly in her hand. I honestly hope that she did not catch it, but picked up from the floor, but who knows.

At Butterfly Conservatory.We explained to her how we should never do such things and that she might have accidentally killed the poor insect. It made a lasting impression on her. She was not very upset, but to this day she remembers it now and again and tells us that she is sad because she killed a poor butterfly.

Алёна с бабочками.We went to the hotel after this, and had lunch at the local restaurant again. The kids were really excited at the prospect of going to the pool, so that’s exactly what we did. We spent a good chunk of time there, since there was a Jacuzzi to get warm after a cool pool.

Skylon tower.Our next objective was the Skylon tower. We walked around the observation deck for a little bit and enjoyed the falls views from high up. Originally we wanted to have dinner at their buffet, but it was only open for lunch on that particular day. There was a highly-rated revolving restaurant on the tower as well, but we decided to save the experience for the CN Tower in Toronto. Plus it was rather expensive, as one might expect from a place like that.

Conquering the fear of heights.Instead, we ended up going to a Brazilian steakhouse, and it was just so good! It was probably our best dinner of the whole vacation. It was not cheap either, but the children ate for free, so it was a very good deal for us, considering that Arosha ate more meat than I did, and Anюta was in a close lead to me.

SkyWheel.I have to say that normally Arosha is not a big fan of meat. He oftentimes refuses to eat meat that I cook at home, unless it’s in the form of meat pie or samsa or part of the soup. However, he loves shish-kebabs and good steaks in restaurants, and when we go to Brazilian places, he always surprises me with his appetite.

View of the waterfalls from the top of SkyWheel.Our last day at Niagara Falls was cloudy and grey. We started our adventures with the ride on the SkyWheel. For some reason, our children really enjoy Ferris Wheels, so we try to take a ride on one whenever the opportunity presents itself.

View from our window.After the ride we went to some arcade place. The most interesting thing there was an air hockey table. Danya and Arosha played a game, but Anюta was too small to hit the puck. To be quite honest, I get really bored with arcades after spending more than 5 minutes in such places. I think Danya feels the same, so we did not linger.

Clifton Hill.We walked around the city down the Clifton Hill street for a while. There are a lot of souvenir shops, different strange entertainment places, where the visitors are either being scared or are supposed to laugh. There are also some “museums”, most notably the Guinness World Records one, but they did not look interesting enough to spent our time and money on them.

Lunch at Niagara Brewery and dinner at Rainforest Cafe.We were not sure where to have lunch. We almost went to Friday’s, but the prices there are unjustifiably high. How weird is it, that they charge almost a third more than in our local TGIF? The Outback Steakhouse had the same issue. So we ended up going to the Niagara Brewing Company. I really enjoyed our lunch, and so did Danya. The children were not impressed with the food, but I am still glad we went there instead of some chain place.

Waterfall with a ship.After lunch, we walked by the falls again and headed to the hotel. My head was starting to ache, which unfortunately happens to me at least ones on vacation with kids. I am not sure if I just get overtired and my body protests in such a way, but this seems to be the trend. I think we went to the pools again, but I am not sure 100% if we did.

Brazilian.By dinnertime, my headache got worse, but the children were getting really hungry especially considering that they barely ate anything at lunch. We decided to head for the nearby Mexican restaurant with good reviews, but unfortunately it was closed.

View from our window.We could not find anything good close to the hotel, and ended up going to the Rainforest Cafe, which we spotted during the day. It was pretty far from the hotel, but since we did not anticipate going there beforehand, we did not take Anna’s stroller. She did not mind walking by herself, but sometimes we carried her for better speed.

Crossing the street.The food in Cafe was nothing special, but the atmosphere was perfect for the children. We were sitting next to the gorillas, and our little ones were fascinated when they were moving and talking. Arosha also went to explore other parts of the restaurant to get a closer look at elephants and waterfalls, and Anюta followed him around like a little pup.

Niagara Falls.I was feeling quite nauseous, so I just ordered hummus and water. I think I would have been better off skipping dinner altogether, but I did not know that at the moment.

Rainforest Cafe.We went to the hotel afterwards, and Danya had to carry Anюta most of the way, since I felt too sick to do it. When we got to the hotel, he and Arosha took a car and drove to the Falls to see the night illumination. They only saw the white lights, since the colored illumination comes up fairly late.

On a ship.I felt even worse, but after throwing up a few times, I took tylenol for the headache and was able to fall asleep. I felt just fine the next day, to everyone’s relief.

Skylon Tower.

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Day Trip To Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa.When we were planning our trip we couldn’t make up our mind whether we should rent a car and drive or if we should stick to trains as it has worked so well for us in Japan. After thinking and thinking we decided to go ahead and get the driver’s license anyhow and possibly try to rent a car for a single day, but traveling by trains seemed like an easier and less stressful thing to deal with and that’s what we did1. We ended up not visiting any small towns, but it was the right decision for the first trip.

Tuscany.We moved from city to city by rail via bullet trains. We used public transpiration around those cities and that was definitely the right thing to do. Even though city centers are quite busy and streets are tiny that wasn’t the scary part of driving. The scary part was the fact that there are some no driving zones even though roads lead there and tourists tend to drive into those parts and get fined. Plus who wants to deal with looking for parking on vacation?

The streets of Pisa.But having a European driver’s license in hand we figured that visiting Pisa would be a great time to try renting a car for a day. We were staying in Florence for 3 nights and Pisa is only 60 miles away. We weren’t quite sure if we’ll want to spend the day outside of Florence or if we’ll want to spend that day in Florence itself. However several things tipped the scale towards a drive to Pisa.

The streets of Pisa.First we arrived to Florence pretty early on Sunday. Somehow we budgeted the whole day for the train ride, but since the ride wasn’t all that long we ended up going to downtown area on that very day and saw a good portion of what we wanted to see — Duomo. We also did our climb to the top and took a good set of pictures. Our second objective in Florence was Uffizi Gallery and it was closed on Monday — we had Tuesday for that. Third is the fact that Pisa Tower is a very famous place and being so close to it and not seeing it would not make sense. And fourth was simply the fact that we wanted to get some out-of-the-country car renting experience under our belt.

In our Fiat on our way to Pisa.Before the trip I looked for car rental places, but all of them were near the central train station close to downtown or the airport. Neither one seemed exactly convenient, but I made a reservation near the train station, thinking that we’ll be spending time in the center of the city anyhow. On Monday morning we couldn’t really decide whether we still should do it. Driving out of the center is one thing, but not knowing where to drive is a whole other matter. Instead we went down to the reception desk of our hotel and asked if there were any rental places around. Turned out that Eurocar Rental was 5 minute walk away.

Our Fiat Panda.That’s where we went. Slowly moving guy, by American standards at least, said that they did have cars and their rates were very comparable to the rates that we got online for downtown rental. We also decided to include a GPS unit and all possible insurances that they were offering in addition to the mandatory theft insurance — none of my credit cards were offering insurance to cars rented in Italy and neither did my own car policy. The total for the day came out to $127. There were no hidden fees that and no problems whatsoever.

Central Pisa.One funny moment or maybe a silly moment for us was that we decided to boast how cheap the gas is for us in the U.S. and how we can easily afford to drive big, V8 powered cars to which the guy gave us a sobering reply: “Our medicine is free. My kids will go to college for free.” And something else along these lines. In his words it’s nice to be middle class in Italy, but if you want to be rich you have much more chances of making it in U.S. I personally will take my chances. All other countries are fun, but there is no place like home and New York is it.

Our Panda.Now that was a long introduction. At this point we finally got into our Fiat Panda which sported a 1.2 litter engine at the most, but which was unexpectedly roomy. The car came with a manual transmission. Luckily for me I had a pretty lengthy manual transmission experiment running during my younger days, so I had no problems driving a stick. All the traffic was also no big deal after New York. And with the help from our GPS unit we were soon speeding away from Florence and on our way to Pisa via autostrada A11.

Pisa.Weather-wise the day was less than stellar, no put intended. It was the only day when it actually rained throughout all of our trip. But it worked out OK for us. It only rained while we were driving and when we arrived to our destination the rain stopped. Rain was one of the reasons why we took a big highway straight to Pisa instead of small back roads. Another reason was the fact that we sill weren’t too sure of our navigational abilities, so we took the surest route. We hoped that on our way back we’ll take some smaller road and hopefully will get to stop in some small towns. Alas, that’s not how it worked out.

Parking meter and street signs.It took us an hour to get to Pisa. We spotted the tower from quite a bit away and soon after easily found parking fairly close to the central district of the city. There was a ton of elaborate signs explaining the parking rules, but in the end it came out to operating a very similar in use parking machine that New York City is covered in. We dropped the coins in, it spat a printed ticket out that goes behind the windshield. The restricted traffic zone was also very clearly marked, so I don’t think there really was a danger of us crossing into it accidentally.

Restricted traffic zone.We left our car and went on a hiking tour around Pisa. The town itself was somewhat of a cross between Florence and Rome architecture-wise, although the number of tourist was noticeably smaller than that of the other two cities. And beside the tower and central cathedral there really wasn’t much to do as far as our itinerary went. Even though the city itself has numerous other historic churches we decided to limit our whole Italian trip to the most famous locations in order to avoid a complete mess of memories at the end of our vacation.

Central Cathedral and Tower of Pisa.The famous tower itself is indeed a sight to behold. I knew the tower was leaning, I didn’t realize how much. It really stands at freakishly steep angle. In fact the angle was so freakish that we decided to forgo the climbing to the top tour — our only such omission during the whole trip. We took a good number of pictures, although I ran into another problem here. While all the normal towers on my pictures were falling down because of wide-angle distortion, this one was actually coming out straight. Quite ironic. As a result I don’t really have any pictures that I’m proud of from this particular place.

Mediterranean Sea coast.We walked about around the central area, took some more pictures of the main cathedral and headed back to our car. Our next objective was try to head up north along the coast of Mediterranean Sea as far as the day (sun) would allow. We actually wanted to get all the way to Manarola for its picturesque views and it was only 60 miles away, but there just wasn’t enough time. The sun was getting close to horizon by the time we were only half way there. So we stopped in one of the coastal resort towns — Marina di Pietrasanta — and took a nice walk along some pier and watched the sun set over the water. The town itself was virtually deserted, but it probably is bustling with activity during the summer months.

View from the pier.At this point we got back into our car and headed back to Firenze. Since it was dark out already we ended up not stopping or taking detours towards any of the small towns, even though we took a different road back. When we were getting closer to Florence I went into some panic mode — I know, so unusual — thinking that we won’t find the rental place, our hotel or any gas stations to fill the car up at. I really wanted to return the car this day and not have to wait until morning and worry about this chore the next day.

Resort town of Marina di Pietrasanta.“Strangely enough” there was no problem finding anything, although gas bill came out quite high even on 1.2 litter engine. We turned the car in and were back at our hotel room at around 7pm. Now I could truly relax and reflect on the experience of this fun and unique day. We decided not to take a bus to the center of the city and went to local restaurant for dinner on a recommendation of our hotel staff. We walked through the modern yet quite neighborhood of residential Florence, ate our dinner and drank our wine at Mi Amor restaurant, and were asleep soon after getting back to our cozy room of our Hilton Garden Inn.

  1. We did the math and buying a pass like we did in Japan didn’t make financial sense. In Japan the reservations were included in the price of the pass. In Italy reservations are mandatory and are not included in the price. []

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