Tim Foolery

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Ghent by Bike

Exploring a new city is best done by bike, don’t you think?  This holds especially true for a city like Ghent that has more than 400 km (248 miles) of cycling paths and more than 700 one-way streets where bikes can travel in both directions.  While the city of Ghent may not be as well known as a cycling city as Amsterdam, but is a huge part of the Ghent lifestyle.  I mentioned that our 1898 Post Hotel was surrounded by car-free streets – you’ll only find pedestrians, bicyclists, buses and trams.

We’ve had some amazing bike tours in ParisLondonBarcelonaMexico CityVietnamShanghai, South Africa, and Bruges. Most of these tours have been spent with us riding to, from and between some of the most famous sites in the area.  We’ve seen Notre Dame, Big Ben, the Gothic Quarter and the Bund on these rides, but in Ghent it was a little different.

First off, we didn’t book this tour until we were a day away from Ghent.  I’m embarrassed to admit that I was booking this tour while we walked around the Flanders Field American Cemetery on Memorial Day.  I found Bike Ghent on TripAdvisor and was impressed with the reviews.  Unfortunately the website wasn’t working properly when I tried to book, so I shot the owner, Christophe a quick email, which he responded by calling me back almost immediately.  He had another private tour planned for the day I wanted, but he offered to try to reschedule the previously booked tour, which was quite surprising.  He called back a few minutes later – SUCCESS.  Instead of meeting at his normal pickup point, we’d meet at the main train station.

Instead of touring the main historic cites, which are all centrally located in Ghent, Christophe took us around different parts of the city that tourists usually don’t see.  We left the station and traveled to Citadel Park, where Christophe told us that it was a pretty popular gay cruising park – a strange non-sequitur.  We continued along bike paths and main arteries learning the history of the area and how Ghent is transitioning into a modern 21st century city with co-work spaces and tech hubs.  The university system is large and diverse driving additional innovation.

The real focus of our tour also included the amazing street art scene in Ghent.  It was vibrant and diverse.  The murals were inventive added a fun level of whimsy to this urban space.  There was even a practice area near the old port where taggers can practice their trade, which was great to tour.  I was really digging the art – but if I had read this was a street art bike tour, I wouldn’t have signed up for it, but I’m so glad I did.

When you visit Ghent, do yourself a favor and call Christophe (the owner operator) of Bike Ghent, you won’t be disappointed.  He has a wealth of knowledge and makes the ride really fun providing a view of the city that you can’t get on your own.

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1898 Post – Ghent Hotel

Our next stop in Belgium was in the Flemish city of Ghent.  As noted earlier, there weren’t really any Starwood properties in the areas we were visiting, so we felt free explore other lodging options.  When we are in this situation we love to branch out and explore new and unique hotels, lodging in unexpected or re-purposed spaces is always high on our list too.  The hotel we chose in Ghent was the former Post Office and was centrally located and is flanked on one side by the Leie River and Korenmarkt on the other. Ghent is a very pedestrian and bike friendly city, which I love, but what I don’t love is the sheer number of pedestrian zones near our hotel, making driving to the hotel and dropping off our bags difficult.  The hotel doesn’t offer parking of any sort.

The original building was built in 1898 (hence the name) and operated as the Ghent main post office until 2001.  The building was sold and re-purposed in 2014 into its current state housing 37 hotel rooms. The rooms continue with the postage theme, the appropriately named Stamp room is just 19 m² (204 ft²).  We stayed in the Postcard, a two level loft room with 25 m² (270 ft²). This room was interesting as the king sized bed and the separate water closet were on the main floor, while the beautifully designed bathroom was upstairs in the loft.  The double height room made the tight quarters much more comfortable, I didn’t feel cramped at all, but let’s be honest, the room was tight and there wasn’t much space to lounge, unless you were sitting on the bed (or maybe the stool in the bathroom). The largest room is the Loft, coming in at 65 m² (700 ft²), so there are plenty of options to fit your needs in this property.

The rooms are adorned with dark, rich colors.  There were lots of deep greens and dark woods. It was a very masculine design aesthetic, which we really enjoyed.  I wouldn’t incorporate it into my home (well, maybe a guest room), but it did feel quite welcoming, despite the color choices.  I think if it were a cold dreary winter day, this style would be cozy and comforting – with a nice strong cocktail, no less.

The bedroom was tight, but the views were unmatched.

The wardrobe and minibar added much needed storage to this room.

The view of the tight bedroom area from the upstairs bathroom.

The water closet – why would you need a stool in this room? Is additional seating really needed?

When we arrived there was a bartending competition taking place in the main bar, which was closed to the public.  I didn’t want a drink before I heard about the competition, but then I was immediately interested and utterly parched – and frustrated that I couldn’t get a drink.  That frustration passed quickly as we chatted up the gentleman working the front desk. He was excited to talk about the property and he obviously took pride in his job and his city.  After getting the basic info on the hotel, he offered several suggestions for dinner and drinks. He offered some pretty standard touristy places, but when we pushed and said “would you drink/dine there?” he immediately said he wouldn’t and it was mostly for tourists.  So he gave us different options that we took him up on. More on that later.

We were offered an escort to our room, which we politely declined and headed down the perfectly curated halls to our room. The ornamental selection of books and other historic treasures can be found on bookcases and tables in the halls and throughout the rooms themselves.  It doesn’t feel like a hotel, it feels like a perfectly planned guest room in a friend’s home. I found myself looking at every item on the shelves and quickly realizing that 1) the design team put a lot of thought into each item and 2) I could spend my entire visit just looking at the bric-a-brac.

The double height hallways were rich but flooded with natural light.

The hallways had an Eiffel Tower feel but were a bit dark.

An expertly curated and appointed bookcase in the public spaces.

The view from our room was on Korenmarkt and St. Nicholas’ Church, which was truly stunning during the day and utterly breathtaking all lit up at night.

The view from our room of St. Nicholas’ Church

The bathroom upstairs was fitted with white octagonal tiles and oil rubbed bronze fixtures.  The shower was large and luxurious with great water pressure and loads of hot water. The biggest problem with the bathroom area was it was just so hot up there.  It was 31C (88F) during our stay, but the loft area trapped the heat and the shower itself just pumped out more heat. It was actually uncomfortable when you were getting ready, post-shower.  We needed some additional circulation up there – it’s awful when you have a long hot day exploring a city, come home to take a refreshing shower before dinner, but are just as hot and sweaty after the shower as you were before.

A small vanity with very limited real estate, but the design was spectacular.

The shower was glorious.

The hotel has an honor bar on the second floor as well, for hotel guests.  This unmanned bar has several different types of liquor and wines. You are allowed, or should I say, encouraged to make yourself a drink – just be sure you write down what you had, how much and your room number.  They’ll be happy to add it to your bill. I love the trust this shows in guests and perhaps I’m just a cynical traveler, but I wonder how many deadbeats make a drink, but don’t pay for it. The honor bar was also expertly appointed and really called you to sit down, read a design book and enjoy a rich cocktail.

The honor bar was well stocked – I love the decanters.

The honor bar a warm and welcoming space.

The cordial set in the honor bar.

A quiet seating area nestled in a corner of one of the public spaces.

Speaking of cocktails, we did stop by the bar, called the Cobbler (not after a shoe mender, but a cocktail shaker) and had a nightcap.  I have an irrational love of mezcal, so I had to ask the bartenders to make me a cocktail of their choosing, with mezcal – but also with the bounty of the season – it’s a little over the top, but the herbs, fruits and berries made not only a beautifully styled and balanced cocktail, but it was a great little midnight snack.

This custom cocktail with an elaborate bouquet of herbs and fruit.

One more note on the booze selection, I think the minibar was the most wonderful incarnation of an in-room minibar I have ever seen.  Like everything else in this property, much care was taken not only in selecting the items to include, but the presentation of those items.  While we did not partake in the minibar, we were quite tempted and I think if the Cobbler had been closed, we would have made our own specialty drinks.

The minibar was well stocked and was quietly demanding we make a cocktail, how could we turn it down?

Our room, all in including taxes and fees was 206€ per night.  While not on the cheap side, we found such great value in this hotel and loved the idea of supporting a property in a repurposed space.  All the staff interactions were that of a five-diamond property. I would definitely stay here again – and I really loved the city of Ghent, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we do return at some point in the not-to-distant future.

Do you dig unique hotels like this, or does it feel too gimmicky and contrived? Do you appreciate the time and effort that go into all these details at a hotel, or would you prefer to stay in a place that spends more time and energy on the important things (comfort, safety, service) vs. an expertly curated bookshelf in a hallway?

American Cemetery on Memorial Day

After our visit to Ypres, the Hill 60 Battlefield and the French Mass Cemetery we wanted to visit one more WWI Memorial as we made our way from Bruges to the second city on our trip, Ghent. The American Cemetery is located in the town of Waregem and is the final resting stop for 411 American soldiers. The names of 43 missing soldiers are inscribed on the chapel, but have no known graves.

These men had died in battle not far from the current cemetery in the waning weeks of the war. We just happened to arrive on the Memorial Day Holiday in the US. That is a Federal holiday off from work, which we usually parlay into a longer weekend trip somewhere (we’ve used this weekend to visit Paris, South America, London, and Italy). The weather was beautiful during our visit, sunny, warm with a slightly sweet smell on the breezy air. Spring in West Flanders was amazing.

The Flanders Field American Cemetery.

The grand entrance to the American Cemetery

The stone chapel at the center of the American Cemetery.

A commemorative wreath laid by the American Battle Monuments Commission – the entity responsible for maintaining these cemeteries.

The symmetrically placed markers for each of the soldiers laid to rest here.

One of the quiet areas of reflection at the cemetery.

A beautiful Memorial Day

The cemetery was quiet, but it looked like we had either just missed or arrived too early for a Memorial Day ceremony at the American Cemetery, as dozens of folding chairs were stacked along the periphery.

We spent about 45 minutes walking the grounds of this small memorial. I was looking for last names that I recognized, finding none. The first grave we came upon was the most moving to me. Walter Lang from Ohio had died in battle on November 11, 1918 – the final official day of the war. This young soldier was so close to returning home to his family. So many of the markers had this tragic date engraved on them.

Walter Lang died on the final day of the war.

Have you visited the American Cemetery in West Flanders?  Do you visit memorials like this when you travel or do you actively avoid them?

Bruges / Brugge / Brügge – The Venice of the North (?)

With only a couple days of vacation to explore Belgium, we knew Bruges would be on our short list.  We’ve heard how beautiful and peaceful it was and how it was commonly referred to as the Venice of the North because of all the canals.  Located just 100km / 65 miles from Belgium’s main airport outside of Brussels ittook us a bit over an hour to make the trip.  The roads between the two were in excellent shape and traffic was non-existent.

We got a bit lost trying to find our hotel and a place to park our car once we got the Bruges, but finally decided to just park in one of the many parking garages located throughout the city.  Parking cost us less than 20€ for the nearly two days we were there – and while our host at the Nuit Blanche Guesthouse was horrified by the high prices, we found the convenience of a parking garage completely outweighed the cost.  We did find street parking just down from our Guesthouse our final night and the meter only cost 4€, but it wasn’t available when we first arrived.

Across the canal from the Nuit Blanche Guesthouse

Bruges is small.  The historic city center is just 430 hectares or 1.7 square miles, so anyplace you may want to go can be reached by foot in just 20 minutes or if you wanted to hop on a bike, you could be there in 5!  The city center is designated a world Heritage Site by UNESCO and is home to just 20,000 people.  Another 90,000 live outside this small historic center though.

Aerial view of Bruges from the Belfry.

The cathedral and surrounds.

Everyone we talked to mentioned the canals in Bruges and how it really reminded them of Venice.  First, I’ve never been to Venice (YET!), so I can’t completely comment, but when I think of Venice, I think of a city where you MUST travel by boat to get around.  Not so in Bruges.  We didn’t get on a boat once and had no issues reaching our destinations – it wasn’t even like we had to walk out of our way.  The canals are a prominent feature in Bruges, but not something, in my mind, even warrants comment and I sure wouldn’t classify it as the Venice of the North.

During the day, the city center was packed with tourists, people with fanny-packs and selfie-sticks.  People would visit from Cruise Ships – and they would complain about the transit options from the port to the city center (fellow bike tourees wouldn’t shut up about it – no Uber / Lyft in or around Bruges, evidently).  Once evening was upon us, the streets cleared out.  The tourists hopped back on their luxury motor coaches or their Scandinavian Cruise Ships and left the town to the locals and the few tourists who chose to try to experience the city as a local.

The tourists start to flood into the plaza around the church

The mornings were nice. We could have a quiet breakfast or walk around the parks or museum plaza without fear of losing an eye to a flailing selfie-stick.  As the morning progressed, the streets filled.  People gladly handed over their money to locals for horse drawn carriage rides (which, by the way, drove surprisingly fast – faster than I’ve ever seen a horse an buggy go before) and gelato  (we did the latter, but it’s gelato and I don’t consider that too touristy…plus it was 31C each day we were there and Timmy needs his ultra dark chocolate).  I was surprised and disappointed at my fellow travelers as I saw the queue outside of both the Pizza Hut and the Burger King on the main squares.  C’mon people – venture out of your old habits!

The deep verticality of the Church of Our Lady in Bruges.

Inside the Church of Our Lady, so naturally bright and beautiful.

I enjoyed our time in Bruges. It is a bit of a sleepy city.  We had a couple good meals and one really awful meal, but at least the servers yelled at us for not eating the tepid oysters and shrimp that smelled like low tide at the pier.  The mussels were great and the beers were stellar.  I don’t know if we’ll ever return to Bruges, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t highly recommend this destination.

Enjoying a lovely Belgian Beer canalside.

There are places you go and return to (Paris, London, Bangkok) and there are place you go, enjoy and never return (Bruges, Toulouse) and then there are places you go and never want to go back and want to stop other from going (Carcassonne). Go to Bruges.  Ride a bike. Drink a beer. Eat some mussels and yes, some gelato, but for the love of God, do not go to Pizza Hut or Burger King.

Ypres (Ieper) and WWI: Our Trip Back 100 Years

When we decided to visit Belgium I knew that I wanted to spend some time exploring the battlefields and memorials from the First World War.  In High School (and a couple times since) I read and re-read All Quiet on the Western Front and was shocked and horrified by the atrocities of the war.  The author was so wonderful at painting a picture, I am woken by nightmares every time I read this book.  Also, the Belgian Ambassador to the US had recommended a book called War and Turpentine for people who planned on traveling to his country, which I had just started reading when the planning of this trip began.  Both are great books with a WWI time frame, but a true focus on the human impact of war.

The first thing that made my list of WWI destinations was the city of Ypres or Ieper. This city located just 53 kilometers south / southwest of Bruges and played a key strategic role in WWI – it was the bottleneck that stopped the German advancement through neutral Belgium into France.  It is also home to some of the most horrific fighting in the war.  There were multiple battles of Ypres (1914, 1915 and 1917), the second of which was the first time the Germans used poison gas during the war.  The town was completely destroyed in the war, but was rebuilt afterwards which was paid for by the German reparations.  The town center continues to look like it would have before the war.

Looking back from the Menin Gate to the central square in Ypres.

The rebuilt city of Ypres (Ieper) from the tower.

Ypres is home to the “In Flanders Field” museum which, located in the main square of the town.  This museum traces the war from a local perspective, showing detailed maps, uniforms and even rebuilt trenches that you can walk through – putting you in the middle of the battle.  Other than what I’ve stated before, probably the most memorable thing about this area is it was the site of the unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914 between German and British soldiers.

For those of you not familiar with the Christmas Truce, it took place just a few months into the war (a war that was supposed to be over very quickly, no less).  Near Christmas the various warring factions laid down arms, collected their wounded and buried their dead, sang Christmas songs, shared photos of their families, etc.  The museum had a very moving video recreation of this.  The video is very simple and consists of four men (French, German, British and Dutch) standing in uniform telling a bit about the war at Christmas time.  The most poignant part is when each begins to sing a Christmas Carole (Silent Night) in their native language.  As the song is sung, the soldier who was speaking, steps into the background and another steps forward to tell his tale.  I watched the full series of soldiers roll through their parts.  These were just boys fighting this war, forever changed. Likely their first time really away from home, especially for Christmas.  It was quite moving.

We spent about 90 minutes at the museum.  I’m very interested in WWI and read most of the materials posted in the museum, but I am also a very fast museum patron.  I’d suggest you budget 90-120 minutes for a visit, depending on your level of interest.

Each night at 20h00, since the end of the war, at the Menin Gate in the center of Ypres, the Last Post Ceremony takes place.  This moving ceremony begins with the Last Post Bugle Call, progresses to the laying of wreaths (which guests can sign up and do in honor of friends, family or impacted organizations) and ending with the Réveille Bugle Call.  During our visit we also had some pipers and an additional moment of silence.

The crowd was large and is expected to be large throughout the year, as 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War.  We arrived at the Menin Gate about 19h45 and the area was utterly packed.  We knew it would be busy, but weren’t expecting it to be this busy on a Sunday night in late spring.  We were able to hear everything perfectly well, but couldn’t really see anything until after the ceremony, where we made our way through the crowd.

Our less than ideal position at the profoundly moving Last Post Ceremony.

Some of the servicemen and women participating in the Last Post Ceremony.

It was a quick yet moving ceremony.  I cannot imagine what it will be like on November 11, 2018 – the day that marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the war.

Have you visited Ypres before?  Were you moved by the Christmas Truce exhibit as much as I was?