Romantic Belgium! So much to explore in one area.
Home Exchange – Belgium, The Netherlands, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Iceland
“We love your home. Would you be interested in visiting Belgium next August?” Belgium?? Really didn’t know much about it. Elton John wrote a song about it. Sheila’s knowledge of Belgium was her memory of a very handsome Belgian who joined her senior class in Florida! After a little research, we could see that their home was ideally located just a couple of hours drive from some very interesting cities and sites (Amsterdam, Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Antwerp, and more). From here, we could easily visit 5 countries (Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, and France).
The area is famous for chocolate, cheese, and beer – how could we go wrong?
They were a family of 5 with 3 teenage daughters. They had visited Colorado several times before and loved it and wanted to come back again. In fact, they were thinking about moving here permanently. After several emails and a phone conversation, we had our dates set and figured out the travel logistics for a home (and car) exchange for 3.5 weeks in August of 2013.
Theirs is a very nice country home built in the town of Putte, Belgium, a bedroom community of Antwerp. The Netherlands border was just across the street, steps from the house. The border between Belgium and the Netherlands continues to zigzag through town with no obvious “Welcome to” signs to keep one’s orientation. The home was very well maintained and even though it is modern from the outside, the inside is decorated like a Colorado Mountain log cabin, complete with framed Colorado scenery pictures.
One of the duties of home exchangers (if requested and agreed upon) is to take care of pets.
In this case, we were temporary guardians to a very affectionate, but independent cat (Molly) and a couple of chickens (one was a big bully). The chickens provided enough fresh eggs for breakfast every other day. The home was very quiet and comfortable with a great outdoor patio. We were both in the middle of client projects so we were able to keep caught up with work between our excursions to local sites and cities. It’s always a bit of a challenge learning to operate foreign appliances, but we figure it out.
Since we live near the mountains, the first thing we noticed while driving around the countryside was total flatness. The biggest hills we saw for the first two weeks were associated with either dykes or freeway interchanges. Bicycles and bike paths are everywhere, but because everything is so flat, the bikes only need one gear.
Speaking of bikes, you really need a new sense of awareness of their presence here. Bike lanes are everywhere, including in the middle of sidewalks and it’s easy to forget to look for them as you explore the cities. We had several polite bell ringings directed our way and a few not so polite near collisions with some Dutch swear words mixed in (esp. in Amsterdam). Good thing they are used to clueless American tourists or maybe we were just lucky the cyclists have good reflexes.
“Why would you take a vacation to this s***-hole?”
This is what we heard from some of the young locals at dinner in the village of Putte. They thought it was a boring place to live. We found it peaceful, clean and nice with a couple decent restaurants, but then again if we were 20 somethings antsy to take on the world we’d probably agree with them.
There were two grocery stores in Putte, one in Belgium and one across the border in the Netherlands. Each had pretty much the same products, all labelled in French, German, and/or Dutch. Thanks to Google Translate, we were able to figure out how to prepare them. We happened to need groceries on August 15th, not realizing that is Assumption Day. Interestingly, the stores in Belgium were closed for the national holiday, yet the one a block down in The Netherlands did not observe the holiday, so we didn’t starve.
From our Belgian home, we took fun day trips to:
The towns of Middelburg and Zierikzee, in the Netherlands – culture, food, chocolate and beer.
The beautiful and well-preserved city of Bruges. We liked it so much, we found a nice BnB and stayed an extra day, but we would have loved to stay longer.
Ghent – doesn’t get as much press as Bruges, but unexpectedly majestic, clean and vibrant.
Antwerp – Sheila was a rebel and wore pearls to the diamond capital of the world. Since it was so close to Putte, we visited here twice. We had good intentions to tour the big cathedral and a couple major museums, but due to circumstances beyond our control (including rain, a gay pride festival, a food festival, and new friends at the food festival who kept plying us with their wine), we never made it past the main square. We sure had fun.
A couple of nearby wildlife preserves with wetlands and waterfowl galore.
North Sea beaches (Netherlands) with a side trip to the charming village of Veere. It was windy and the water was breathtakingly cold, but folks were swimming. We never got in past our ankles.
We did an extended road trip to the Mosel Valley of Germany (famous for Reisling wine), Luxembourg (with lots of castles), and the French village of Riquewihr (where we met up with some of our sailing friends from Switzerland for several wine tastings).
At the tail end of the road trip, we did another short home exchange in Rotterdam (Delft, Kinderdijk, Amsterdam) before returning to Belgium. Wonderful family who later visited us in Denver.
On many of these excursions, we made it a point to sample the chocolate, cheese, and beer (but not at the same time). Suffice it to say that Belgium’s reputation is well deserved. We had no idea that so many cities in the area are canal-based (similar to Amsterdam and Venice). It makes for some very pretty scenery and an alternate mode of transportation.
Everywhere we went, we found the food to be quite good, the people to be very friendly, the cities very clean, and the roads in very good condition. The men (especially the senior men) had no reservations flirting with Sheila, even though it was obvious she was with me. Good thing I’m not the jealous type. One gentleman at the food festival in Antwerp insisted on braiding her hair, then ran off to return with an onion to finish (a unique approach to be sure).
This home exchange in Belgium was a wonderful success. Belgium had not been on our short list, but we’re so glad that they chose to reach out to us. On the flight home, we made a memorable four day stopover in Iceland…that’s another story.
Trip Date: August 2013