Brussels Christmas Market

Christmas time for me evokes many warm childhood memories. Decorating our family tree, shopping with mom in the big department stores all decked out with lights and displays, and of course, Santa Claus. I remember how excited we would get as Christmas day approach; the anticipation was palpable.

Many if not most of our Christmas traditions are deeply rooted in European culture. From the Christmas stories we read, Christmas TV shows and movies, Christmas music and Hallmark cards, all seem to depict those Dickensian or Currier & Ives themed scenes of a simpler time. What’s more traditional than the Christmas Market? These Christmas Markets date back to the Middle Ages celebrating the Advent season leading up to Christmas day.

What is it about European Christmas Markets that keeps drawing us back? When you walk the cobblestone streets of a European Christmas Market, usually located at the main Cathedral square or at centuries old town hall plazas, the past seems to come alive. Vendor chalets selling hand crafted ornaments, decorations or toys, plenty of local street food and the famous hot mulled wine (German Gluhwein or French Vin Chaud). For me this is magical, reinforcing the Christmas Spirit.

This years Christmas Market visit was to Brussels. Flying on the day after Thanksgiving, arriving for the opening weekend of Brussels’ Plaisirs D’hiver or Winter Wonders celebrations. The festivities are spread throughout the city and my hotel was in front of the main Christmas Market at Place Sainte-Catherineis.

The crowds were huge for the opening weekend with all ages; families with kids, young and older adults, lots of locals and tourists. Obviously a very popular place at Christmas time.

The Sights & Sounds of Brussels’ Christmas Markets

The main Christmas Market at Place Sainte-Catherineis with over 200 vendor chalets was located right across the street from my hotel, the Brussels Welcome Hotel. The hotel was quaint and quirky, with each room decorated in a different country decor. My room, the Cuba Room had a model of a ’57 Chevy convertible on the door (instead of a number), and the interior had cigar themed pictures and decorations plus a large wall mural of an old Havana building facade. The owners, Michel & Sophie and their staff were very friendly and helpful. They had their own chalet at the Christmas Market that featured oysters and champagne, that’s classy!

Speaking of the food, this Christmas Market had most of the typical fare; German bratwurst, pretzels, other comfort food, and of course, the Gluhwein. But there were some upscale selections as well, such as escargot, Russian caviar and vodka, along with the local favorites, fresh Mussels, Belgian chocolate and Belgian waffles. Fortunately there is a lot of walking at these Christmas Markets, so you can burn off those excess calories.

Food

There were several other Christmas Markets within walking distance. Grand Place, the main city square, with its towering 17th Century city hall surrounded by the gold trimmed Guild Halls, featured a large Christmas Tree in the center of the square. Grand Place was the site of an amazing light and sound show, presented every evening (several showings each night), with colorful lights projected against the facades of the old buildings.

Grand Place Light & Sound Show video

After a week in Brussels it was time to go home. This was the last trip for our 2019 travel season. Another Christmas Market completed and awaiting the New Year for new and exciting travel adventures.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Everyone!

Olá Portugal

We just returned from our 12-day vacation in Portugal where we did a Viking River Cruise of the Douro River Valley. Our Viking itinerary had us spending the first two days in Lisbon, then on to Porto where we joined our ship, the Viking Torgil, for 8-days of cruising the Douro Valley. We returned to Lisbon to spend 2-days on our own exploring that city.

In this blog we will describe our overall impressions of Portugal, in the next few days we will publish additional blog posts to share some specifics:

  • Cities of Porto and Lisbon
  • Beautiful Douro Valley
  • The Viking River Cruise Experience

 

Rich History

In our history classes long ago, we learned about the famous Portuguese explorers; Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Pedro Álvares Cabral and others. The discoveries of these explorers opened sea trade routes to Brazil, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, China and Japan making Portugal a powerful empire in the 15th – 16th Centuries. Now, Portugal is a relatively small country in the European Union, but that rich history and culture is still alive in the beautiful buildings, palaces, cathedrals, universities and cuisines and the Portuguese people are proud of this heritage.

 

Arriving

We arrived from Newark into Lisbon’s Humberto Delgado Airport which is very close to the city center. The airport is like any international airport, although it wasn’t too much of a walk from the arrival gates, through passport control out to baggage claim. Viking staff were waiting at the arrivals hall where we joined a bus with other Viking passengers to take us to the Hotel Tivoli Avenida Liberdade, our home for the next two nights. This hotel is located on Avenida Liberdade, a beautiful, wide, tree line boulevard, called Lisbon’s “Champs-Élysées”.

 

Spending

Portugal, being part of the EU uses the Euro and now the US dollar exchange rate is very favorable, at US$1.10 while we were there. Also, Portugal is very affordable (for Americans) when compared to other European countries.

Language

The language of Portugal is, of course, Portuguese. We learned that Portuguese is the 9th most spoken language in the world. We found most people do speak English, so it wasn’t difficult communicating. It helps to learn some basic phrases and locals appreciate the effort. Many years ago, I traveled a lot to Brazil for business and some of the Brazilian Portuguese I picked up came back to me. With my pronunciations, some locals picked up on the Brazilian accent. I have used the App Duolingo, which is very helpful for learning language basics. Doulingo is a free App on Android and IOS and I recommend it. Some basic phrases:

  • Thank you….
    a man would say Obrigado, a woman would say Obrigada
  • You’re welcome…. De nada
  • Good morning…. Bom dia
  • Good afternoon…. Boa tarde
  • Good evening…. Boa noite
  • Please…. Por favor

Wonderful People

Everyone we met, hotel staff, tour guides, shop keepers, restaurant servers all were very friendly, welcoming and helpful. Social media allows us to connect with people all over the world and on Instagram, we have been connected with an Instagrammer named Libi from Porto. Libi posts images and stories about daily life in Porto and she visits some great coffee shops and posts interesting pictures around Porto. In the past year or so we have been following each other, commenting about each others posts. When planning our Portugal trip earlier this year, we mentioned to Libi our trip and asked about things to see and do. She was excited and enthusiastic about sharing her city and country. We made arrangements to meet for coffee at one of Libi’s favorite places. So when we arrived in Porto she met us, had some gifts for us and we enjoyed a coffee together. Libi is a wonderful young woman and we now have a good friend in Portugal.

Our Instagram friend Libi from Porto took us for coffee at a classy coffee shop C’alma.

Great Food

Yeah, there is good food in Portugal, you won’t go hungry and you may need to loosen the belt a bit before you leave. Watch out for the favorite pastry, the Pastel de Nata. This custard based tart can become addictive, it’s a great treat to have with coffee at one of the excellent coffee shops you will find in Lisbon, Porto or anywhere in Portugal.

Salted Cod dishes abound, I didn’t realize there were so many ways to prepare salted cod, or Bacalhau. It can be boiled, fried, made into cod cakes, croquettes, it seems that some restaurants have pages of cod dishes.

Salted cod dish and Pastel de Nata.

Our first night we decided to stay at the hotel (Tivoli) and eat at the attached restaurant called Cervejaria Liberdade. I had the best pork dish ever, this was grilled pork tenderloin steaks from the famous acorn feed black pigs. Amazing experience.

Bucket List Fulfilled?

Portugal was on our bucket list and our experience there was just amazing. Such a beautiful country, great food and the people are so friendly. It seems that on this trip we didn’t get enough, so we now add Portugal to the “Got to Go Back” list! In the following blogs we will share photos of the amazing sights and experiences, so please come back.

Continue reading

On The Road Again…

Bom dia!

We will be off to the airport later this morning for our next adventure, Portugal.

We will be joining a Viking River Cruise tour of the Douro River… River of Gold, for what should be a fantastic time. Arriving tomorrow morning (Tuesday Oct 8th) in Lisbon, we will stay 2-nights before a motor coach tour up the coast to Porto to join our ship, the Viking Torgil. The below map shows the 10-day itinerary.

Watch for future blog posts about the journey or follow on Instagram for daily updates. Instagram… https://www.instagram.com/rdwetmore/

Adeus!

Viking Torgil Tour

Portugal’s River of Gold

Montana Vacation – Part 1

Big Sky – Majestic Mountains – Huckleberries – Friendly People

This year our August vacation was to Northwest Montana. Our visit would include the towns of Missoula, Whitefish and Columbia Falls, touring Glacier National Park, the Bitterroot Mountain area and the Bison National Range.

Kathie and I met up with our daughter Jen, who flew in from DC. So this was a family vacation and during the week we celebrated both Kathie and Jen’s birthdays.

Our visit was during the first 2-weeks of August. The weather was good overall, albiet hot during the days (mid 90’s). At the very end of our visit there were some severe thunderstorms, but these didn’t interupt our plans in any significant way.

This “Part 1” blog will focus on our visit to the Missoula area. A “Part 2” will continue with our visit to Glacier National Park and the surrounding areas.

Missoula

Arriving in Missoula, we spent the first weekend there. Missoula is a fun town, home to the University of Montana. We explored the Saturday Street Market and Farmer’s Market, which were very popular and lively.

The Missoula downtown has some interesting late 19th – early 20th Century building architecture, great area for walking and exploring. 

Flying to Missoula

We flew United from Boston to Denver connecting with a United Express flight to Missoula, about a 2 hours flight from Denver. The window seat view flying into Missoula on a clear day is breathtaking as you follow the valley between mountains on final approach.

Walking around Missoula

Enjoying the street scenes and the riverfront area. This is Lewis and Clark country.

Saturday Morning Markets

Saturdays in Missoula feature an arts & crafts People’s Market on E. Pine St (closed to vehicle traffic) and a large Farmer’s Market on the riverfront next to Caras Park.

Food & Drink

Missoula offers plenty of food and drink options. There are many gourmet coffee shops and very good micro-breweries. The dining choices vary quite a bit from casual to upscale.

The Bayern Brewery was a real treat, serving excellent Bavarian style micro-brew beers and authentic German comfort food. The pilsner draft with a large, home made pretzel, bratwurst and warm German potato salad really hit the spot.

Our dinner choices included:

  • Plonk, a comfortable wine bar atmosphere featuring a wide selection of wines and a small plate menu ideal for sharing.
  • The Pearl Cafe, a French inspired menu with local ingredients. A very warm, cozy place and we had an excellent server, making it a very pleasant experience. My first Bison tenderloin experience, yum! Reservations are highly recommended.

Other favorite spots in Missoula:

Other Sites Around Missoula

Historical Museum at Fort Missoula

On the site of Fort Missoula, originally established in the 1870’s during the Indian Wars. The fort served as a US Army training base during WW1, then a Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) camp in the 1930’s. During WW2 it was an Alien Detection Center housing Italian, German and Japanese foreign nationals and resident aliens.

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

Located outside Missoula, it was a few minutes from our hotel. Very interesting and informative, dedicated to the conservation of Elk herds. The exhibition area has life-like dioramas depicting Rocky Mountain wildlife in a natural habitat.

Garnet Ghost Town

Garnet Ghost Town is about a 1-hour drive east of Missoula. The town is an abandoned gold mining site with preserved buildings and structures. There are volunteer guides on-site who provide historical information and stories.