As usual, the month of November flew by and I cannot believe we’re now talking Christmas Markets, travel to the States, and the inevitable upcoming busy season. Perhaps even more shocking, a fast approaching Christmas means that we’ve already been here five months! Our fifth month as Belgian residents felt a little less chaotic as we didn’t travel outside the country, but that didn’t mean there were a shortage of activities. November started with a visit from friends and ends with a day trip to Bruges to check out our first Christmas Market- here’s a recap on what we’ve been up to the past three weeks.
Upon our return from Switzerland, we welcomed my friends Caitlin and Claire for a brief visit in Belgium at the tail end of their Euro trip. They took the train down from Bruges on Saturday morning and we spent the afternoon in Brussels with stops at the usual top tourist sites and establishments- Mannekin Pis, Grand Place, and Delirium Café, before a traditional Belgian dinner at a place down the road from our apartment.
The highlight of their visit, in my opinion, was our trip to the south-west corner of Belgium on Saturday for a hike amongst the autumnal colors of the Ardennes. I came across a blog post about the Ladder Hike a few months ago, but the weather hadn’t cooperated the last time I attempted to take visitors. On this day, we lucked out with a beautiful but crisp fall day where the Ardennes were glowing bright yellow and orange. I was surprised at the number of people enjoying the awesome views of the Semois River from the small town of Rochehaut, but the crowds thinned out after we started off on our hike.
The blog I read had indicated that we would be easily able to follow signs for hike 84 for the Promenade des Echelles so we were slightly confused when we saw no such signs at first. Fortunately, Claire was paying close attention to our surroundings while I was attempting to navigate and noticed a rudimentary, but important, “key” on a wall alongside the road. Said key indicated that we should in fact be following hike 43 instead (see picture of this important message below). After following the path out of town and into the woods, it wasn’t long before we were climbing and scrambling up and down the hills of what is not the flattest part of Belgium. We all agreed that this would not be a hike to attempt after the rain- it was very steep in some spots and even in my hiking boots I slipped more than once. I was also the only one wearing boots (the other two were in sneakers) so maybe that’s more of a testament to my “gracefulness”. Fortunately, there were some excellent views of the Semois River to keep our mind off the inclines and it wasn’t long before we encountered our first ladder.
According to this same blog, the ladders were installed in the late 30s as part of a secret route to a shelter between the rocks. After WWII, this ladder route was then incorporated into other hiking trails in the area and rather recently underwent a refurbishment where they also installed some railings along the steeper sections- a good call in my opinion. During the hike, you actually use the ladders for both ascending and descending the rocks, and I’d say even those with a fear of heights could handle the ladders… just avoid the drop-offs along the other sections of the trail!
Even with the cool breeze, we were sweaty by the time we finished and made it back to the road leading to Rochehaut. The 5km loop took us around two-hours, which in hindsight seems like an unbelievably slow pace, but this route covered some steep ground down to the river and back up the bluffs and had our heart rates elevated. We also stopped to take some pictures along the way, which depending on how you look at it, will slow you down or allow you a chance to catch your breath. It was definitely a hike I would recommend and will hopefully return to after the Belgian winter rains cease.
Back in Rochehaut, we rewarded ourselves with beer, a crepe, and crème brûlée for lunch since we sat down to eat during that awkward time in between the lunch and dinner menus. We capped off their last night in Brussels with dinner at our neighborly pizza place and then they were on their way back the US the following morning. These two were our last visitors of the year and I’m so glad they were up for some adventuring in the Ardennes!
We spent the next weekend laying low and getting caught up on all those things that get put to the side when you are travelling and entertaining. The following weekend however was the centennial anniversary of the end of WWI, also Veteran’s Day in the US, and we thought it was important to spend some time reflecting on what 100 years since the Armistice means in the present. We were aware of the momentous role that the fields of the Flanders played during WWI but through our subsequent research, learned of the significance of the town of Ypres, which would be hosting special events in commemoration of the Centennial Anniversary. I learned that the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres (or Ieper in Flemish) is dedicated to all those missing in the five battles fought near Ypres and the town has held a nightly Last Post ceremony at the Gate since 1927. The Memorial at the Gate contains the names of soldiers who were killed but never identified or recovered from the muddy and torn up fields. Along with other memorials in the area, the site honors the altogether hundreds of thousands of soldiers who were killed in this region that also saw the first use of poison gas by the Germans.
At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 100 years after the armistice signed between the Allies and Germany, thousands of people from all over the world gathered in Ypres for the ceremony to remember those who had served and sacrificed. The lawn of the Memorial was covered in red paper poppies with messages of remembrance and hope, and all persons in attendance stood for a minute of silence before the buglers, bagpipes, and marching began. Even without the best view, it was both sobering and moving to take it all in with complete strangers beside me, some of whom likely had familial ties to the nearby Flanders Fields. It’s these moments that remind me how fortunate I am to be able to visit places that hold such significance in our world history and pause to appreciate the impact that the choices of those in the past have on us today.
With so much to be grateful for this year, we happily partook in an early Thanksgiving dinner with our fellow US ex-pats. As you can imagine, Belgians do not celebrate Thanksgiving and therefore we were not allotted Thursday off, so we joined our friends for a gathering on the Sunday before the holiday instead, complete with the usual dining table favorites… even turkey! A note on the turkey- as European ovens tend to run on the small side and for us Americans don’t seem to be as intuitive (does anybody actually know how to accurately calculate degrees Fahrenheit to Celsius), this was a feat successfully mastered by our hosts. I will freely admit that I was not ready to volunteer for turkey duty this year but opted for contributing the carrots (not the boring kind) and potatoes instead. All the dishes and desserts were phenomenal and we left with the familiar full feeling, regrettably knowing that Monday awaited us.
I’m still on the look-out for a Christmas tree and maybe a little snow around here but if we can’t have those, we’re still going to get our fill of the holidays in the coming weeks with a couple short excursions to Christmas Markets. Our first stop was in Bruges this weekend, but more to come on that in the next post. If we can make time for three markets, I think I will have had my share of glühwein (mulled wine) for the season.