Castles, Cathedrals, Roman Ruins… A whirlwind first week.

How to put into words the experiences of the last week. The diversity of experiences and the wealth of information to process. After several days it blurs into one and I have to go back and read my journal to refresh my memory of which castle was which and where we were at which point.

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We started our journey in Belgium in La Roche en Ardenne. Our lodgings a tent which, in the cold rainy weather the region was experiencing, was absolutely freezing. I endeavoured to find slippers as soon as possible. La Roche was gorgeous and obviously a booming tourist spot in the summer. It was fairly quiet while we were there and it was a joy to explore the cobbled streets. T was super excited to visit the local castle, and so that was our first order of business. We reached the gate to find it didn’t open until 11am and so the kids bounced through the streets burning off the energy suppressed over the long days of travel. We came to the local cathedral and entered. The beauty in this small local cathedral was breathtaking, unlike any thing I had seen before. I am in awe at the work that went into the buildings in the medieval and Renaissance periods. The bells of the cathedral sound out the time in Europe and the kids quickly figured out that you can count the bongs to tell the time and T was so excited when she counted 11 and the castle was opened. The castle was a self guided walk and we had a blast wandering in and out of old rooms, climbing the ramparts and peering at the city below through the arrow slits in the walls. We finished the day with a long drive up to the Netherlands to find a tree top walk in the Maas forest, but got lost and when we did find the walk, it wasn’t worth the drive north. The architecture changes from region to region and I note the differences and ponder the reasons for them.

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The following day we ventured south to Bouillon as we heard the castle there is one of the best in Europe for exploring, boy was it ever. We were able to wander the castle unescorted and crawl through passages on hands and knees. It was clear from the view through the arrow slits and over the walls, that this castle would have been impenetrable from invaders. Z was thrilled and just about jumping out of her skin when she found out that there was a falcon show. The falcon show was fabulous and while it was in French, the pantomiming was such that we were in stitches. Z spent the show behind her camera, and when one of the falconers came beside her with his bird, her smile could have split her face in two.

Our last day in the region, we explored the Grottos de Hotton, some limestone caves which the region in famous for. The tour guide gave the tour in four languages, and since we were the only English speakers, he came and gave us a private spell at the end of every stop. It felt like we had a private tour guide. It the ceiling of one of the chambers was a band of shells, deposited millions of years ago, then uplifted as this area became part of a huge mountain range, which has since broken up and been worn down to hills.

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Our next stop was to be the Saar valley in Germany. We had hours to kill before we could check in and so decided to stop and visit Bastogne where we had a delicious croissant. I am in love with the food here and I don’t know how I will eat after returning home. Everything is full of flavour and bursts in your mouth and no matter how rich the food, I never feel ill like at home. While in Bastogne we visited the memorial to the American soldiers who had died defending Bastogne in the 1st world war, over 76,000 dead or missing. The memorial overwhelms as you walk towards it, rising up from the ground into the heavens with the names of all the different states inscribed on it’s walls. Again, my body was wracked with sobs and they didn’t stop for hours. I have cried everyday since being here, sometimes from the unbelievable beauty, sometimes from unbelievable grief. The land is full of feeling here, you can’t walk through it without wondering about the past. What blood has been spilled under my feet, which soldiers have stepped in the places I tread, who lived here 2000 years ago… all questions that don’t cross my mind in our young country back home.

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We enter the Saar valley, rolling hills topped with canola field and vineyards. The smell of the canola fields permeates the car reminding me of the smell of lilac. We twist and turn through villages spaced walking distance apart. The temperature rises past the 10 degrees we have experienced for the past 4 days into the 20’s and we shed our layers for t-shirts and shorts. We find our campsite situated at the top of a “mountain” and find it to be a definite resort. Our tents are in rows and the entrance is mud. The place is packed with people speaking every language but French or English and I suddenly feel very alone and very out of place. The kids find a playground way cooler than any playground I have ever seen with a water tap for mud and sand play, a huge bouncy cushion and houses that look like they should house gnomes.

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We are now near the city of Trier which is one of the oldest cities in Europe dated back to before 200BC. It is a glorious hotspot of Roman ruins and I am in love and in heaven. We wander the streets and come upon ruin after ruin after ruin. We visit the Porto Nigra, one of the original gates of the city and the museum beside it. The museum has listening devices for kids in English and the kids spend two hours listening to the exhibits before we explore the Porto Nigra. I am impressed at how attentively they listen to the information. We soon find that the Roman Ruins hold no interest for the kids, they are too destroyed, too abstract for the kids to grasp, unlike the medieval castles. The Porto rises high above the city square and the warm wind howls through its openings bathing us with its breath. We visit the Basilica and are floored by the beauty and the grand scale of reliefs, carvings and masonry. It is the older of the two cathedrals we will visit in the city. On our way to our next place, the Roman amphitheatre, Derek makes some funny comment to the kids in English and the man walking beside us laughs. It turns out he is Canadian, from Toronto and we chat for several blocks before we part in separate directions. We got to the amphitheatre just before close and so have the whole place to ourselves. We are able to go underneath and see where the chariots and props were stored and the machinery to bring them up to ground level. The wood on the apparatus is dated to 300BC. It was strange to stand in the centre of the arena and imagine cheering crowds surrounding as the blood was spilt.

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Trier is amazing, and I am in love. We endeavour to spend the next day there as well visiting the baths and we do, seeing both the imperial and regular baths. It is amazing to see the plumbing work they accomplished. The imperial bath was filled with twisting tunnels underground to explore, which of course the kids loved. T insists that we have missed something in every site we visit and is almost in tears in her assertion that we haven’t seen everything. The Dom (cathedral) which we weren’t able to enter the day before, is now open to us and we enter this phenomenal building and the beauty is such that I find myself again in tears. The stained glass and vaulted ceilings are unlike anything I have ever seen before and I am floored by the elegance. (Unfortunately we were unable to take pictures inside). The kids are doing amazing inside the churches and memorial sites, and have been great at maintaining a respectful silence while we are inside. We finish our day exploring the ruined tower and water fall in Saarburg. The kids are getting a bit burnt out and are a mess by the end of the day, We have walked 14 hours in two days, so I’m not terribly surprised!

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Our last day based in the Saar we realize that Verdun France is closer to us here than it will be in any of our other sites, and we would like to see it. We drive 2 hours south, to find the holographic museum tour that we really wanted to see is full for the day. We decide instead to visit the battle field and the ossuary and one fort. Driving into the battle field of Verdun is unreal. The ground is full of hillocks from the months of fighting and shelling during the first world war. As you drive up to the ossuary, row upon row of white crosses sprout from the ground, a testament to the men from France who died in this prolonged battle over a hill. We try to answer the kids questions, without getting too graphic and we enter the ossuary and are bathed in the orange glow coming from stained glass windows as we silently walk and read name after name of the young dead men inscribed on the walls. Back outside Z says to me “there are way too many graves that is too many dead” and she is right. The 17,000 graves are only a fraction of the thousands who died in this spot during months of battle. We visit a fort fort and walk the dank dripping halls and imagine the hell of living inside them for months on end as the shells fell overhead. It is dank and depressing and devastating in a way that overwhelms the senses.

The next day we pack up for our full day of driving across Germany. The Autobahn is insane and we travel at speeds up to 150km/h trucks pass each other going 120km/h with almost no room to spare and you have to watch that you don’t slam into the back end of a slower going vehicle! We are tense by the time we reach our campsite near the Czech border in Bavaria. We are staying in a mobile home in this campsite, since it is too early for tents. We are completely and pleasantly surprised to walk into our mobile to find we have walked into what looks like an ikea showroom. Two bedrooms, a bathroom with toilet, a bathroom with bidet, shower and sink as well as a fully equipped kitchen. After 8 nights freezing in muddy tents we are in heaven and decide to have a low key couple of days. The internet has been crap through Germany and so I am using this time to finally blog, I will likely have to find somewhere in town to upload it as we have almost no signal at our campsite.

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Yesterday we visited Passau, the crazy tourist hotspot it is. The Dom is beautiful with ornate paintings on the ceiling. We drive the winding roads home through the hillside and the kids paint on the covered deck with a thunderstorm raging around us. I am content and happy

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3 Comments

  1. Robyn
    May 10

    Absolutely amazing Sam…you had me in tears several times!

  2. Jo-Ann Zyla
    May 11

    Such a gift you give to your children. One wonders at the creativity and thinking these experiences provoke,…and the transformation in store for you all. Thank you for sharing….wonderful!

  3. Liz
    May 12

    Once again Sam, I absolutely love reading about your adventures.!! And seeing the pictures. This is such an amazing trip and incredible experiences for the four of you. You had me in tears a few times as well. I look forward to your next blog!!
    Take care,
    hugs to you,
    Liz

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