Tim Foolery

Bruges by Bike

We love to take bike tours when traveling. We find it is an amazing way to see the city from a local’s perspective, plus you get to cover more area than you normally would by foot. We’ve taken bike tours in Paris, London, Barcelona, Mexico City, Vietnam, Shanghai and South Africa (and more). Belgium is known as a bicyclists’ country (maybe not as well known as the Netherlands though). We didn’t spend much time researching various operators in Bruges, but after spending a few minutes on TripAdvisor and reviewing a couple of blogs, we settled on Quasimundo Bike Tours.

These folks were located just a few minute walk from our hotel and offered tours in Dutch and English normally, but you can get other languages if you request ahead (French is available, and I believe you can get Spanish and German too).  When we arrived there were about 20 people waiting outside for the tour and I started to have real regrets.  Large bike tours like this really lose a lot.  People have varying levels of cycling ability and interest, the guide is spending much more time ensuring the tourees are with the group and has less time to actually give the tour itself.  Luckily, most of these people were heading out on the Dutch language tour – the English tour had just six people (including us).

The tour is billed at around 2.5 hours, departing at 10h00.  Our guide showed up a little after 10h00 and we left at  10h15 as he had a flat tire on his commuter bike.  The guide was very relaxed and extremely knowledgeable.  He effortlessly guided us through the compact city, stopping at sites that were historically, culturally or visually important.  He wasn’t too big on lots of dates and names, as he says, you’ll just forget them anyway, but he did throw out key dates and wove a story connecting each of our stops.

A quaint residential street in Bruges

The canals of Bruges

The canals made the city so picturesque

Bruges is truly a beautiful city

We also stopped off at the oldest continuously operating pub in the city and had a lovely sour beer that is locally brewed.  Being a World Heritage Site imposes some interesting restrictions on a city.  For example, you are to limit the number of trucks going around your historic quarters.  This posed quite the problem for the brewers who had been in Bruges for centuries – if you can’t transport by truck, how do you get your sudsy creations to consumers?  One brewery built an underground pipeline from the historic center to the suburban distribution center.  They didn’t want to pack up and leave their home, but couldn’t grow their business without massive trucks – a simple yet inventive idea.

Bruges was hosting a large public art event when we were there. This whale was donated by Hawaii and made exclusively from plastic found in the ocean.

A classic view – canals, public art and the belfry

A view from the windmill

One of the few remaining windmills in Bruges.

We enjoyed our tour – we got to see some wonderful sites and hear fun and interesting tales.  We did not bike to the two main squares or the cathedrals that Bruges is known for.  This was intentional as those sites are better explored on foot and they would have eaten up quite a bit of our tour time.  Plus those are very easy for tourists to do without a guide.

For 28€/person this was a great way to spent a few hours and allowed us to see parts of the city that we definitely wouldn’t have been exposed to on our own.

Do you take bike tours when you travel?  What is your favorite place to explore by bike?

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Nuit Blanche – Guesthouse Bruges

I’m usually a Starwood guy and you can often find some beautiful Starwood Properties in Europe like the Prince de Galles Hotel in Paris, Hotel Bristol in Vienna, Hotel Alfonso XIII in Seville.  Unfortunately, Belgium didn’t have ANY aspiration Starwood properties, so we decided to stay local. Using TripAdvisor, Booking.com and blogs, we found each of our hotels for this quick trip.

After landing in Brussels, we immediately grabbed the rental car and headed out of the de facto capital of Europe.  We arrived at the “Venice of the North” shortly after 11h00 and after a little GPS-induced confusion, we parked our car and schlepped our luggage to our hotel – there is no onsite parking at Nuit Blanche.

The Nuit Blanche is a two room guesthouse, located right on the Gruuthuse canal and adjacent to the Church of Our Lady immediately connected to the Lover’s Bridge.  Like our confusing experience at Abbaye de Maizieres in Beaune, we couldn’t figure out how to get in the front door. Luckily another guest came by and let us in the hotel. Evidently you need an access code that isn’t given to you until you check in, but you can’t check in until you enter the hotel.  A little chicken or the egg scenario, don’t you think?

The building adjacent to our hotel – could you find a more lovely view?

The Nuit Blanche is housed in a building from the 1450s and it was also the place where the current King and Queen of Belgium spent part of their honeymoon.  We were given the room on the top floor, which was pretty large with a king bed. There wasn’t really any area to relax, but there was a small dining table where you could take your breakfast each day, if you’d like.  We dined in the common breakfast area both days of our visit.

Our bed covered with a heart made of (fake) rose pedals.

While we didn’t have use of a fireplace during our very warm visit, it added great character to our room.

The toilet was open to the rest of the bathroom, but considering bathrooms weren’t standard when this building was constructed, I’ve got no complaints.

The tub with a beautiful tile surround.

A single sink isn’t ideal, but one can overlook such things when everything else is so charming.

The room didn’t have air conditioning, which wasn’t too much of a problem as the two windows, when opened, provided the most wonderful cross breeze cooling the room to a perfect temperature.

Much like our Memorial Day trip to Paris in 2017, Belgium was unseasonably warm (31C every day), but the room wasn’t too warm at all. We slept with the windows open each night and since the back of the hotel backs up onto the museum and cathedral squares, which are closed to the public each night, it was very quiet.

Breakfast was included in our room rate and consisted of fresh fruit, a yogurt or rice pudding, a small sandwich and eggs “prepared on the whim of the chef”, which basically meant the eggs were cook however the chef wanted, and your only choices were to eat the eggs or not.  I’m not a big egg guy in general. The first day we had eggs sunny side up – I just picked out the tomatoes and made Mike eat one of the eggs. The second day we had scrambled eggs, again, I ate the eggs with bacon and tomatoes, but left most of the eggs.

The breakfast fruit plate was full of perfectly ripe treats.

We jumped into breakfast before I could take a proper picture. The tomatoes were great!

The breakfast sandwich was delectable.

Our host, Micheal, is an artist.  He displays his art throughout the hotel and opens up his studio to the public during the days.  The art we saw was mostly oils on canvas, with most of the subject being babies or fetuses. The dining room had babies in military attire and the color palate was grey and depressing.  To me, it was the artists take on the horrors of war and more specifically the impacts WWI had on the entire generation of young men and women. I didn’t talk to the artist about his canvases so I could be completely missing the point – I was really focused on WWI history during this part of the trip too.

The owner is quite the eccentric but was such a warm and welcoming host.  He spent 20 minutes with us and a tourist map of the city, outlining his favorite bars and restaurants.  Showing us where the hotels will send you, where other Americans will be (no thank you!), where he goes, where he doesn’t and why. It was really a nice and informative session.  He did this with every guest who was interested too.

I mention the owner as an eccentric because, interestingly enough, when we’d mention to a server or our bike tour guide, where we were staying they all hesitated for a moment, gave us a half smile and asked how the stay was.  Then immediately mentioned his eccentricities and how some people just didn’t like it. I have no clue as to what they were talking about – this guy was so personable and welcoming. Perhaps he’s a bit of a pain for the locals, he mentioned his constant vigilance in keeping Bruges tourist friendly, but sustainable and keeping others who are against those characteristics at bay.  I can imagine he would be a passionate pain in the neck at a City Council Meeting. That passion made him a wonderful host and in my opinion a true asset for the city.

I have no hesitation in recommending this place to future travelers and if, by chance, I end up in Bruges again, I would immediately look to book this property.  It is centrally located, clean, safe, reasonably priced and and the proprietor is a generous host.

Have you visited Bruges?  Did you spend the night (it seems like most people come in for the day and are gone by evening)?  What were your experiences like? Do you have any accommodation recommendations?

Holiday in Belgium – The Flanders Experience

As you likely read earlier, I found myself with a return ticket to Vienna on United (and Austrian) through Brussels. We weren’t really interested in visiting Vienna again. While I love that City and can’t wait to return, I was just there in March and was looking for something different. Belgium has been on our list for a while and I figured since I’d technically be flying through Brussels, I may as well just hop off the plane and explore.

I’m a pretty big World War I buff (not one of those nuts who reenact battles or anything, I just love reading personal stories about the war, watching shows that take place in and around the war and of course proper documentaries on the subject). Also, my favorite beers are Belgium beers, so it really seemed like a no-brainer. Since I had the ticket to Brussels, I just needed to find a way back home – which is exactly how I got into this “ticket to Brussels” situation in the first place. I’ve always wanted to try Brussels Airlines and this seemed like a perfect opportunity.

The canals in Ghent.

Leaving on a Friday and returning on a Wednesday wouldn’t leave me much time to explore, but we could see a couple of places. Like I always say, I’d rather leave a destination wishing I had just one more day than wishing I had left a day or two prior.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll detail the portions of the trip that I think will provide the most interest to you all. If I’m leaving anything out, just ask – and feel free to use the comments section. Not that I don’t like getting emails from you all – which I love and respond to every one – leaving a comment will help others as well.

St. Bavo’s Cathedral – Ghent, Belgium

We spent all of our time in Flanders, the Flemish part of the country, so I didn’t really get a chance to speak French at all. A bit disappointing – but I did deal with the Brussels Airport and the Brussels Airlines crew exclusively in French.

You’ll notice I don’t plan on writing about my flight over to Brussels. There was nothing important to write about. We flew coach. Tight seats. EconomyPlus Legroom. Mediocre Food. Nothing to talk about here. Keep Moving.

Are you planning a trip to Belgium anytime soon? If you’ve been, what was your favorite parts of Flanders? I will return to Wallonia to explore Chimay and practice my French.

Austrian Airlines VIE-IAD (OS93)

My flight to Vienna was direct on Austrian, but they don’t offer a direct return on Sundays (at least during the off season), so I had to connect.  I found a connection through DC on Austrian in Business Class (with a return to Vienna a few months later in coach) for only $1,300.  It was a great deal and since I’d be flying Business, I’d be earning double elite qualifying miles which is a great leap to retaining Platinum Status on United.

I arrived at the airport for my return flight home to Chicago after my quick and wonderful weekend in Vienna.  The morning was a bit snowy but because I was taking the CAT (City Airport Train) I had no issues with traffic or timing.  The CAT is really the best way to and from the Vienna Airport.

Arriving at the Airport, walking up the stairs into the main terminal where Austrian operates, you could easily miss the Business Class and Elite (HON Circle Members, Star Alliance Gold, etc) check-in area.  While it is well marked, it is something you could just walk by and never notice.  Not all of the check-in lines were open, but the ones that were had only about 4-6 people in line. Unfortunately, those lines didn’t move very fast and each  person in front of me had more luggage than a refugee.  Again, I decided to check my roller suitcase, as Austrian can be sticklers when it comes to hand luggage rules.

The elite check-in area for Austrian Airlines. Business Class, HON Circle and Star Gold Members can use this area.

The elite check-in area for Austrian Airlines. Business Class, HON Circle and Star Gold Members can use this area.

I made it through security and immigration pretty quickly and found my way to the Austrian Lounge – there are two lounges, one for Business Class Passengers and one for Star Alliance Gold.  I was very disappointed when I was told I couldn’t enter the Business Class Lounge, because I was a Star Gold Member, even though I had a paid Austrian Business Class Ticket.  The Star Gold Lounge was completely packed – not a single seat was available, people were standing around, it was miserable and reminded me of the Swiss Lounge at O’Hare.

I decided to pop over to the Priority Pass Lounge a few meters away.  It sure wasn’t fancy, but I managed to get a seat and had a couple tomato juices and a bloody Mary before heading off to the gate.  I left the lounge about 20 minutes before boarding and as I walked to the gate, I snapped the Boeing 767 that would take me to Washington.

Austrian’s Boeing 767 parked in Vienna.

The gate area was blocked off into a standard economy section and the business class section – you were put into your section after your passport and boarding pass were checked again. Boarding began about 25 minutes before our scheduled departure.  There were about a dozen people who hopped on the plane before me.  We boarded through door 1L.

Flight: Austrian Airlines OS93 (Business Class)
Aircraft: Boeing 767-300
Seat: 7K
Departure: 10h35 (11h50)
Arrival: 14h30 (15h31)

I was seating on the other side of the plane this time, in seat 7K – again, the seat closest to the window with the side table on the aisle, really, the best of the seating options on this flight.

As soon as I stowed my briefcase and sat down, I was approached by the flight attendant with water, apple juice and champagne as pre-departure beverage options.  Of course I enjoyed a lovely glass of champagne while the rest of the plane boarded and our menus were distributed.

Pre-departure champagne.

Pre-departure champagne served in a beautiful Riedel Glass

Like the previous flight, the chef came by and took our orders for lunch and the pre-landing snack while we were still on the ground, and I was served another glass of champagne.  Unfortunately the snow had picked up and we were told we’d need to head over to be de-iced and we were fifth in line for the procedure.  I started to get a little nervous since I did have a connection in DC and I really didn’t want to get home too late as I had to work the next day.

We waited on the de-icing pad for about 45 minutes until it was our turn.  15 minutes of de-icing and we were ready to take off.  The snow was really limited and I was surprised that we actually needed to be de-iced, I think we’d have just taken off if we were on a US based flight, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.

An Austrian Airbus painted in classic livery.

The business class cabin was quite full and some people tried to take a nap before take off.

About two hours after our scheduled departure time and about 45 minutes after we actually took off service began.  I had another glass of champagne with some mixed nuts.  The nuts were ice cold, which was a little disappointing – I think the warm airline nuts are a nice treat.

Continuation of champagne and fresh nuts. Cold Nuts.

The meal service moved quite quickly.  The antipasti trolley made it’s way down the aisle and I picked one of everything, excepted for the smoked salmon – I am really not a salmon guy.  The octopus was quite good, and no one else on my aisle seemed to like it, so the flight attendant returned and offered me a substantial refill.

I sampled most of the antipasti from the trolley.

The next course was a very lovely tomato soup that was a little smokey and had a few small pieces of bocconcini mixed in.  I was very nervous about eating this soup – a deep red tomato soup on a plane always makes me think I’m going to be wearing the soup with just a touch of turbulence.  Luckily, I wasn’t covered in this tasty soup….this time.

The smoked tomato soup with bocconcini.

For my main course, I had the Viennese style veal goulash, which had a shockingly sweet sauce.  It wasn’t bad per se, it was just not at all what I was expecting and it actually paired horribly with the red wine the flight attendant suggested I have with this course.  The sauce was sweet and the wine was extremely dry, making for a cloying combination.  The spaetzle was really done perfectly though.

Viennese style veal goulash with homemade spaetzle

I was utterly stuffed after this course and couldn’t even bring myself to have cheese or dessert on this flight.  Take a look at my previous Austrian flight review to see how that turned out – the desserts were exactly the same (which is why I chose to steer clear this time).

After lunch, I decided to watch some movies on the in-flight entertainment (IFE). Again, since I had just flown this product 4 days earlier the movie and (dismal) TV selection were unchanged.  As I rewatched Murder on the Orient Express, I napped for a few hours.  I didn’t want to get too much sleep because I had to work the next day, I tried to focus on getting reacclimated to the Central Time Zone.  I also spent much of the flight watching TV shows on my tablet.

We ended up landing in DC about an hour later than scheduled, which meant we picked up about 30 minutes in the air.  Many passengers had tight connections and deplaning was a bit of a mess.  I got off pretty quickly, but then remembered the awful part of Dulles – those people movers that look like they belong on the moon.  I don’t know if you can bypass these monstrosities and just walk, but I boarded these futuristic contraptions and waited.  And waited. AND WAITED.  It took about 30 minutes from the time I hopped aboard until we started to move, then once we stopped everyone began pushing to get off.  Often times I’d rather have a long walk – at least I’m in control of that situation. Being at the mercy of these Star Wars style people movers just made my frustrated.

This was my first time flying Austrian Airlines westbound.  Heading this direction you aren’t focusing so much on sleep as you are on the eastbound journey, so I was able to slow down and enjoy the product and the service of it all.  I really do think that Austrian offers the best Star Alliance Business Class Product out of Chicago to Europe.  I’ll have to expand my horizons and try British, Iberia, Air France or KLM soon though.

Have you flown Austrian Airlines in Business Class?  Which direction is your favorite?  Don’t you just love the onbaord chef and the BLAZING Red Uniforms of the cabin crew?

Stitch Fix: A Tale of Two Boxes

I decided to give StitchFix a try a few weeks ago.  I’d been thinking about using this service a while and when I saw American Express had a spend $50, get $25 back deal, I had to pull the trigger.

For those who don’t know what StitchFix is, I’ll give you a quick summary. Basically, it’s is an online service where you complete a style/clothing/sizing survey on their website and they send you a box of clothes.  You can choose casual or professional clothes.  The service costs $20 for the styling and if you choose to keep any of the clothes they send you, this $20 is credited back to the cost of your clothes.

The clothes are moderately priced. $100 pair of jeans, $50 casual shirts for men, $150 blazers.  If you buy all five items in your box, you get an additional 25% discount.

The StitchFix contents come wrapped in fancy butcher paper.

I don’t need any professional clothes.  I’ve got a tailor in Hong Kong that makes all my suits and dress shirts and I find that Banana Republic pants work perfectly for me – and they are almost always having a 40% off sale.  I just don’t have many casual clothes.  In the summer, I live in BR linen shirts.  If you’ve followed me on other social media (and here), you’ll see that I am often wearing a casual blue shirt from BR – it often ends up as my travel shirt.  It’s comfortable, inexpensive and has a pattern that can hide a stain should we hit turbulence and I spill on myself.  I need more casual clothes.

How did it work out for me?

I signed up and anxiously awaited my first box.  It included:

  • Unstructured Navy Blue Blazer
    • Sleeves were way too short on me. I liked the style and wished it fit properly. Pass.
  • Blue Polo Shirt
    • Standard Blue Polo – I have too many of these as it is. Plus the mid-section didn’t fit properly and it was quite long.  Pass.
  • Black Mavi Jeans
    • The pants fit well and the color looked nice, but there was so much stretch to the pants, I felt like I was wearing spandex or pajamas.  Pass.
  • Two Pair of Socks
    • The stitching was great and the pattern was fun. Two pairs were $28. That’s too expensive for me. Pass.
  • Performance Fleece
    • A basic grey fleece, with long sleeves.  Nothing stellar, but with the AmEx credit, it was totally worth the net $35 cost. Keep.

So the first box didn’t do it for me.  When you checkout online with StitchFix, you have the opportunity to tell them why you are returning.  You answer questions on fit, cost, color, general style, etc – plus there is a freeform section that allows you to include a narrative as to what you want to change.

I decided to give StitchFix another try – especially since I had a second AmEx card with this spend $50 get $25 back credit.  I reviewed my style profile, made some minor changes and then waited for my next box.

My second box arrived a couple days ago and it included:

The winning box – I kept all of these items!

  • Heavy Twill Shirt
    • This long sleeve burgundy shirt was a little big in the mid-section, but fit well otherwise and I thought it was a nice casual weekend shirt for cool weather.  The $68 price tag gave me pause though. Keep.
  • Printed Poplin Shirt
    • I really liked this short sleeve casual shirt from the second I opened the box and it fit well in both the sleeves and the waist – two areas where I struggle in shirts.  For some reason many designers have arm holes that are way too small for me, and I don’t have big arms and the mid-section is either too tight (for my big belly??) or way to big (for my lean stomach???).  Keep.
  • Poplin Shirt
    • This grey long sleeve shirt immediately made the mental rotation for a great travel shirt. It was a light heather grey, so when we hit turbulence and my red wine goes flying, I won’t be able to hide the stain, but the shirt is so comfortable and soft. For $44, it was a no brainer – although I have switched to drinking white wine or prosecco whilst wearing this shirt. Keep.
  • Joe’s Jeans
    • A simple, straight legged pair of jeans that fit almost perfectly.  Honestly they were a little baggy in the seat, but very comfortable in every other part.  $138 and they made it into my closet.  Keep.
  • Jersey Tipped Pocket Polo
    • A burgundy polo, with slightly tighter arms than I like, but a good fit everywhere else.  I wasn’t a big fan of the pocket on this shirt, as the material was a bit thicker, so if the pocket isn’t laying perfectly flat, it enhances your bosom in a very unflattering way.  For $59, I was going to send it back, but I remembered that if I buy all five items, I get 25% the total price. Basically, if I spent $49 on this shirt, I’d save $93.50 on the whole order. Keep.

The total price of this box was $374.00, minus the 25% savings for buying all items, minus the $25 AmEx credit for spending $50 with StitchFix.  I’m pleased with this box.

While it isn’t cheap, that’s for sure and it isn’t a solid win on the selections, I think I’ll continue to try StitchFix from time to time.  I’ll get one more box and see how that turns out and then I’ll likely turn off the subscription for a while.

Do you use StitchFix?  Have you thought about trying it?  Feel free to use my referral code,  Full disclosure, if you follow that link, I’ll get $25 off my next order.  If you love StitchFix, I’d love to hear about your experiences and definitely leave your referral code in the comments.