Europe 2008 - Tourism in Belgium, Days 1 and 2

I'm going to break my Belgium report into two sections - tourism and Bulge military sites. This is the tourism section!

Our day started very early with a walk from our hotel in Bloomsbury to the St Pancras Eurostar station about 5 blocks away. I purchased the tickets for the six of us back in December and checking in was a breeze at the automated machine. After some breakfast we boarded the train and were on our way to Belgium.

St Pancras Station - Eurostar.jpg

Julie and Matthew kept themselves busy on the train with a few games of Solo Dice.

Julie and Matthew Play Solo Dice.jpg

Our Eurostar ticket was good for a transfer in Brussels to any other Belgium station on a standard intra-Belgium train. Our next stop was Liege to pick up our rental car. We had to wait about 2 hours at the Brussels Midi train station before the transfer, giving me time to get some Euros at the ATM (long line - only one ATM in the station!). This was the same station where I took a train to Amsterdam two years ago.

Brussels Midi Train Station.jpg

I was a bit nervous coming to Liege:

  • It was Easter Sunday and I knew that many of the rental car stations in the country were closed for the holiday. I had a reservation and was assured online that the station would be open, but still...
  • Julie and I had to cab it across town to get the car, then come back to the train station and pick up the rest of the crew

Turns out I had nothing to worry about - the office was open (clearly just for us - I'm certain they were shutting down as soon as we arrived). Unfortunately their one and only nav system was stolen so were going to have to navigate the old fashioned way with a map and navigator. The hardest nav we had was getting back to the train station from the rental office.

Europcar Rental in Liege.jpg

We made our way down the German border then cut across to our destination in La Roche en Ardennes. You'll learn more about the drive down when I go into depth on our historical Battle of the Bulge site visits.

Our hotel in La Roche was Le Luxembourg, a quaint hotel / B&B with a fabulous staff. Dinner at the hotel is mandatory on weekends and holidays so we were obliged to join the chef (also the owner) in the dining room. No complaints - the five course meal was fabulous and it was relaxing to just hang out in the hotel after a long day of traveling. Jacob was clearly recovering by dinner time, enjoying his broccoli soup and showing some better spirits.

Dinner in La Roche.jpg

Our first stop on Monday morning were the Grottes de Hotton, a spectacular cave system with a fine tourism center and guide service. Our tour guide was able to simultaneously conduct the tour in Dutch, French, and English.

Grottes de Hotten.jpg

The snow was falling steadily by the time we entered the caves, making this a nice retreat from some blustery weather outside. I was very impressed by how deep and extensive the caverns were - not on par with Mammoth or Carlsbad caverns, but dramatic nonetheless.

Nice cave pool in Grottes de Hotton.jpg

From Hotton we turned south to explore Luxembourg, getting a great tip in Diekirch to visit the castle in Vianden. We had only planned to visit Clervaux but this was a fortunate turn as Vianden was by far the better choice. The castle sits dramatically perched over the city and valley and offered amazing views from below and above.

Castle Vianden.jpg

Dave and Lisa at Castle Vianden.jpg

We made a brief stop in Clervaux to admire the town and castle there, but there wasn't much to see. It would be worth a visit in the future to see the photography exhibit there, but for those thinking of visiting the area you can stick to Vianden for your castle experience.

Clearvaux marker.jpg

We ended our day with a light dinner at the Viking, the restaurant next door to our hotel owned by the same family. The food selection was limited, but the beer selection superb.

Dinner Again in La Roche.jpg

Dave and I both agreed on our new favorite beer - Rochefort 10. Fortunately it is available here in Portland at Whole Foods, but cost is a daunting $6-$7 per bottle. A nice luxury to have from time to time.

Our Favorite Beer - Rochefort 10.jpg

Speaking of our host, here's a shot of the proprietor and chef from La Roche en Ardennes. I think he likes to come over to the Viking to party after he finishes serving his dinner guests at the hotel.

Our Hotel Host and Chef.jpg

Ruby, Rails, and Macports

It should be easier than this. I thought I had a decent Rails installation running on my MacBook Pro but TextMate was giving me some grief when shelling out to execute certain commands (like pulling down the schema for a model).

This worried me - my environment seemed OK, but if TextMate was failing then there's likely some other lurking problem. It took me about 2 hours to unwind everything and get my environment working so that I could see this.

Snapz Pro

The root cause? I'm not 100% sure, but here are a few hypothesis:

  • I had a mixed MacPorts and Leopard install of Ruby and Rails
  • I likely had some path issue that I cleaned up, causing gems to not be found like they should
  • I had some strange mixtures of legacy and new ports installed that needed some serious work to clean up.

I think the concept of MacPorts is good, but in reality it shouldn't be this hard. My experience with apt-get on Ubuntu was about 100% better.

Oh well, all is good now. I absolutely love the new TextMate Rails 2 bundle.

Notre Dame and Hanging Gardens

Some quick thoughts on two games I got to play tonight - Notre Dame (finally!) and Hanging Gardens.

KC, Rita, Ian, Mike and I first played a five player game of Notre Dame, a game I "won" in a secret Santa trade last December but hadn't managed to play yet. I had heard mixed but mostly positive reviews on the game as well as varying reports on play length. We played in a little over an hour after learning and I quite like it. There seem to be multiple paths to victory and enough competition / interaction to keep you on your toes. Balancing the rat and plague problem was a quandary - I think sometimes you just have to take your medicine. The cycling of the cards ensures that you'll have a wide range of options so you can actually strategize a bit, though the timing can interfere with those plans. I think this is a 7-8 rating for me, especially if I can play it in 45 minutes with 3 players.

Hanging Gardens is an interesting puzzle and set collection game where you draft cards with symbols that overlay on your garden. The goal is to get contiguous orthogonal sets of like symbols together that then allow you to claim the tiles you are collecting. Very easy to learn and decent fun, but I have a problem with how many tiles were left at the end of the game when the cards were exhausted. This makes planning very difficult as there are limited sets and for some (like the tiles where there are only 4), the odds seem pretty good that you will only see 2 of the 4 in the game. Not a bad game, but there plenty of other games of this weight that I would play ahead of it.

Europe 2008 Trip - London, Day 3

Day 3 (Saturday) was our last full day in London, and the weather started to turn cold and windy. This would be the trend for the next 5 days or so in the UK and western Europe, with a high likelihood of snow in many of those parts. After a quick pastry breakfast and coffee near our Underground stop, we headed down to the Tower of London to explore the castle and take advantage of the free Yeoman / Beefeater tour.

Dave and Lisa outside Tower of London

We arrived early as planned and walked onto the grounds before the crowds started building up (remember, this was the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter) and proceeded directly to the crown jewels. This was probably a good idea as we saw how long the lines must get there when crowded - it was nice to be able to zoom through the switchbacks and get right to the good stuff. Some big diamonds in there, but more impressive was the vast collection of medieval weaponry and armor.

Matthew prepares to steal the crown jewels

Unfortunately Jacob started turning ill that morning and as the time came to depart for our Beatles walking tour, Julie and Jacob opted to stay behind and explore the torture exhibits a bit more then return to our hotel room.
Dave, Lisa, Matthew and I then raced across town to try and join the London Walks - Beatles In My Life Walk with guide Richard Porter. I've done London Walks twice - once in 1990 as a pub crawl, and now in 2008, and I highly recommend them for the value and experience. We were very fortunate as we arrived at the station 15 minutes late but caught the group just as they were leaving.

Our Beatles walk tour guide

We saw a number of great sites, though none were visually recognizable to me other than the final stop at Abbey Road Studios. Of course I took the obligatory photograph. Matthew decided to keep his shoes on.

Abbey Road baby!

Our final touring destination of the day was to walk in the Westminster, Buckingham Palace, and Whitehall area to take in some of the famous buildings and pound the pavement a bit.

Statue near Buckingham

The weather was getting very blustery by now so on the Whitehall portion of the walk we stopped into a book store with a nice coffee cafe inside and had some giant cappuccinos and hot chocolates along with a much needed foot rest.

Matthew with the guard

We left Jacob in the room for our dinner Saturday evening with Mikael Sheik (of SpielByWeb fame) and his wife Phyllis. We opted once again for Indian food close to home in Bloomsbury. While the food wasn't as good as the night before, the company was outstanding and we enjoyed catching up and learning more about living in London.

With Mikael and Phyllis

We retired early Saturday night to pack and prepare for our early morning Eurostar ride into Belgium.