Saturday, January 31, 2009

Valley of the Seven Castles in Luxembourg (Jan 30)

One lazy day we decided to head to Luxembourg to do the driving tour of the "Valley of the Seven Castles". We asked our visitors Christina and Stig from Norway if they wanted to come along, but they decided to spend their day in Brussels visiting old friends and catching the last bargains during the January sales. Plus, I don't think Europeans get near as excited about castles as Americans!

It's really just the valley of the Eisch River, but that doesn't sound near as cool as the "Valley of the Seven Castles," which is what the Luxembourg tourist literature calls it. This scenic little area holds one of Europe's finest concentrations of castles. The castles are those of Mersch, Schoenfels, Hollenfels, Septfontaines, Koerich, and the two castles of Ansembourg (one is privately owned and only viewable from the valley). Some of the castles are ruins, some are private and only the exterior may be viewed, but nevertheless it is a popular tourist pilgrimage to make stops at all seven. It really doesn't take more than a few hours and can be less if you don't actually get out of your car or hike up to those that aren't next to the road.

Koerich: its ruined medieval castle
Septfontaines: a high-sited village dominated by its ruined 13th-century castle. Below the castle are the seven springs (sept fontaines) that give the village its name.
Ansembourg: 17th-century castle in the valley
Ansembourg: 17th-century castle in the valley. Same as above, but showing some of the grounds which consisted of lots of fountains and gardens, probably would be prettier in the Spring or Summer)
Hollenfels: 18th-century castle constructed around a 13th-century keep dramatically situated on a cliff top (it's now a youth hostel).
Mersch: Drastic renovation has occurred on the once medieval Castle
Schoenfels: There wasn't much left to this castle except for what you're seeing.

Veurne, a small town in West Flanders, Belgium (Jan 24)

Somewhere I had heard that the town of Veurne, Belgium was worth visiting, so Shannon and I took a road trip there one Saturday. It is a very old, charming little town 6 km from the Belgian Coast and close to the French border. One of its most famous inhabitants was the surrealist painter Paul Delvaux (1897 - 1994). We enjoyed walking around the city and taking pictures of all the cute old buildings. We had to stop for an afternoon snack in one of the cafes on the main square, which consisted of a delicious chocolate crepe with some tea.

After visiting Veurne, we decided to head for the coast since we were so close. We stopped off at a town just before Oostende and walked on the beach until we got too cold. I wouldn't say Belgium has the greatest coast by any means, but I suppose it's much nicer in the Summer months. There were a few youngsters riding around on strange looking go-garts / pedal cars.

Old Market Square in Veurne

Architecture from the 1500s, if you look close enough you can read the date on the building

Inside the church near the Market Square
Cute buildings in the Market Square with the church in the background
Another side of the main Square
More photos of the Market Square
Nice architecture
More architecture I like! (maybe one day when we move back, Shannon will build us a house like the ones we've enjoyed seeing in Belgium; though, unlikely we'll be able to afford it!)
Some more fascinating buildings (notice the eagle on the center peak)
Another church
Upclose photo of the church tower which also has a clock on it
I loved this building for some reason! (maybe Shannon will model our dream house after this one...we both have endless ideas, so probably will never happen!)
Another side of the Market Square (notice the deer on the right was very normal to have animals perched on the tops of buildings)
Belgium's coast (I told you it wasn't too exciting this time of year!)
A few kids were enjoying riding the go-carts / pedal cars near the beach

Chateau De La Hulpe and Gaasbeek Castle near Brussels (Jan 14)

One morning after attending a going away party for a lady who I volunteered with at the American Women's Club in the gift boutique, I decided to check out some castles in the countryside near Brussels. (Remember, I don't have the car often, so when I do, I try to take advantage of it!)

First, I visited the Chateau De La Hulpe which is just on the edge of the Soignes Forest. ("Chateau" means "Castle" in French). It was built by the wealthy Solvay family in 1842 and is sometimes referred to as the "Solvay Cultural Foundation". It was offered to the Belgian State somewhere down the line. I believe the chateau holds important seminars and meetings and occasional opera or theatre events on its beautiful grounds. The chateau and its surroundings are truly a magnificent sight with exceptional natural beauty, where all people, whenever they feel like, can visit for free! While I was there, I noticed a few mothers pushing around their baby carriages and several joggers and walkers, some with dogs, enjoying the vast amount of trails that encompass the enormous park. There are also a few ponds with geese and ducks and I even saw some people horseback riding. Here is a link for more information on the chateau.

Next I drove to Gaasbeek Castle which is near the village of Vlezenbeek, where I also found awhile back the Neuhaus Chocolate Outlet! This castle, which resides in the town of Gaasbeek, was initially built in the 13th century. However, it's been renovated completely for the most part and contains styles and items dating from the 16th and 19th centuries. The Belgian State acquired the property in the early 1900s and since then has given it to the Flemish Community. It has a cute moat and nice walking paths around the castle and beyond, in addition to a beautiful garden area. I really liked the architecture of the castle along with its grounds and plan on taking visitors to see this beautiful structure. I noticed that the inside of the castle is only open from April to October, but one is free to explore the huge park around the castle year round. The town of Gaasbeek is also known for its orchards and famous beers (kriek, lambic and gueuze). Someday I will be going back to check out the Lindeman's Brasserie since I really like their fruity lambic beers, "Framboise and Pecheresse" (raspberry and peach). Here is a link for more information on the Gaasbeek Castle.

Chateau De La Hulpe (built in the 1800s)
The ponds near the Chateau
Chateau De La Hulpe (looks like a mansion)
View of the woods, ponds, and trails surrounding the Chateau
Corner shot of the Chateau
Just messing around with my camera!
Gaasbeek Castle
Gaasbeek Castle up close
One of the Castle's sides as I walking to the back
Another angle of the side of the Castle
There is a moat/pond only in the back of the Castle
Trying to prove that I was there! (I'm not very good at taking photos of myself, plus trying to get some of the background!)
After I did a full circle of the Castle

Quick Weekend in Paris (Jan 2 & 3)

Since Shannon will be busy in the coming months with tax season, we decided to take a quick trip to Paris to start off the New Year in style. Though, to be honest, I was a bit exhausted from our holiday travels the week before to Germany, Austria and Switzerland and was dragging my feet, but it proved to be a good time. Our main goals were to visit The Louvre ('Musée du Louvre' in French) and the Montmartre District of Paris, which we accomplished in our two days.

Our first day we visited The Louvre which took us around 4 hours and we still didn't even see all of it! As most of you know The Louvre is an enormous art museum within an amazing architectural structure which used to be a royal fortress back in the 12 century. With its universal collections, it appeals to over 6 million visitors a year. It's been a museum since 1793 and currently houses around 35,000 works of art displayed in over 60,000 square meters of exhibition space dedicated to the permanent collections. One of its most famous works is the 'Mona Lisa' by Leonardo da Vinci (there are also other works of his within the museum). The Louvre also contains several sculptures, including some by Michelangelo and the famous 'Aphrodite' sculpture from the 2nd century BC. Besides all the paintings and sculptures, there are numerous Egyptian, Roman and Greek Antiquities along with other types of art.

After a good night's sleep in the budget chain hotel, IBIS, we visited the Montmartre district which is on a hill in northern Paris. It's primarily known for the beautiful white-domed Basilica of the Sacré Coeur (church) on its summit and as a nightclub district. Just a block or so from the basilica you'll find Place du Tertre which is a square where many artists set up their easels each day for tourists. In the olden days this area was popular with famous artists like Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec who set up studios here. Anyway, there is a wide selection of artwork in this district which we found quite fun to stroll through, especially since Shannon is an art lover (I like it too, just not to his extent as his taste is quite expensive!). We restrained from any purchases this time around, but I'm sure there will be one or two in the future!

We also made a quick stop at Moulin Rouge (translates to 'Red Windmill' in English) for a photo opt. It would be fun to go to a performance sometime, but they are a bit too pricey for us. Moulin Rouge is a cabaret that was built in 1889 next to the Montmartre district in the Paris Red-Light District. It's best known as the spiritual birthplace of the modern form of the can-can dance. It's basically a seductive dance done by extraordinary dancers in fancy costumes. Notable performers at the Moulin Rouge have included Ella Fitzgerald, Elton John, Frank Sinatra, Jane Avril, Liza Minelli, Josephine Baker, Edith Piaf and others. The Moulin Rouge is also the subject of paintings by post-impressionist painter Toulouse-Lautrec. Today the Moulin Rouge is a tourist destination, offering musical dance entertainment for adult visitors, currently showing "Feerie". In addition, "Moulin Rouge" is the title of a book by Pierre La Mure, which was adapted as a 1952 film called "Moulin Rouge". Several other films have had the same title, including 2001's "Moulin Rouge!", starring Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman.

In front of The Louvre and its signature glass pyramid structure where you enter the massive museum

Here is the most admired piece of work in The Louvre, "Mona Lisa". As you can see there was a mob of people trying to take pictures. You actually can't even take a good picture of it because it's behind a thick layer of glass. None of our photos turned out, so we thought this one was quite funny!
Inside The Louvre
When we left The Louvre it was dark. This photo was taken within the pyramid.
Moulin Rouge (translates to Red Windmill) is where people pay high prices to see talented, usually seductive, dancers in costumes performing a variety of shows throughout the year.
Moulin Rouge
Place du Tertre is an artist market / square in the Montmartre District
Shannon admiring some artwork in Place du Tertre
Painters mecca next to the Basilica in Montmartre
Basilica of the Sacré Coeur on Montmartre's hill
Basilica of the Sacré Coeur on Montmartre's hill