Belgium is more than just chocolate.

When you say Belgium the first thing that comes to mind for many people is chocolate. But Belgium is more than just chocolate (and waffles and frites). Belgium is beauty. Belgium is history. Belgium has been a love affair that I haven’t been able to get over and I probably never will.img_4206.jpg

When my brother backpacked through Europe and ended up in a little city called Bruges I couldn’t even find the city on the map. I knew very little about Belgium and I knew nothing about Bruges. But since he decided to fall in love with a Belgium-born woman and move there I knew I’d have to visit. Little did I know that this would begin my love affair with not just Bruges but travel in general. I will always be grateful to Bruges for opening up my eyes to a world many don’t see. I grew up (and still reside) in the Midwest. I wasn’t used to diversity. I wasn’t used to walking through a city and hearing dozens of different languages. I didn’t fully understand that as open-minded as I thought I was, I was actually very narrow-minded. I credit Bruges and travel for my eventual coming out. Bruges is where I came out to my sister-in-law. Bruges is where I eventually came out to my brother. Bruges is where my now wife proposed to me. Bruges will always have a piece of my heart.

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There is something to see around every corner and some little known museum, shop, restaurant, bar. I’ve been to Bruges 7 or 8 times and every time I am there I see something I haven’t seen before. There are nooks and crannies that only the locals are aware of but luckily I have some pretty amazing guides to show me the unknowns.

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While Belgium isn’t just chocolate I would remiss to say that I haven’t imbibed in the ritual of tasting some amazing chocolate. Go to The Chocolate Line where you can taste some of Dominique Persoone’s more…off the wall ideas. Or if you are feeling especially crazy you can snort a line of chocolate right up your nose. It’s like Studio 54 in the 70’s but with a much better high. FYI, I tried to google how many chocolate shops are in Bruges but I couldn’t find a definite answer. Good luck on your search for ‘the best’ but I would say in my opinion the best is The Chocolate Line. One thing I’ll say about any of the chocolate shops I’ve been in-everyone is extremely knowledgeable about the chocolate they are selling and they love to hand out samples. Happy eating!

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One of my favorite subjects in photography is architecture. I can’t get enough of it. Photographing a city like Bruges is a photographers dream. I can’t get enough of the brick Gothic. I’m amazed every time I walk the city. And I definitely cannot get enough of the churches! We have some impressive churches in the United States but the churches in Europe are incredible. I could spend hours photographing them because around every corner there is something new to see.

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While I could go on and on about just Bruges I can’t ignore a few other spots in Belgium. I have spent a few days in Gent and it is a wonderful city filled with (once again) amazing architecture, churches, even a castle! I’ve strolled along those streets and along the canal wishing I could pack up my life and move there because I really think I must be Dutch in a past life.

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The last time my wife and I went to Bruges we also took a day trip to Ostend with my brother. I had never been there before and I am glad my wife found the Atlantic Wall Museum because it was one of the coolest ‘museums’ I’ve been to. You go through trenches and bunkers with an idea of how the soldiers lived. It was pretty rainy the day we went which I think made for an even more authentic experience.

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We also spent an entire day Diksmuide where we saw a LOT of WWI memorials. We went to Dodengang (Trench of Death), Vladslo German War Cemetery and the Museum Aan De Ijzer. The Trench of Death is a small trench and bunker that you can walk through to try to experience what happened there so many years before. The cemetery is small but beautiful. It was a somber but moving experience.

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Then we went to the Museum Aan De Ijzer which was a really well done museum on WWI. It’s housed in this tower where you can go to the roof and you have a magnificent view of the area. From there you take the stairs down each level where there is different information on each floor. We were with 2 children and even they got a lot out of it. It was very informative.

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When visiting Belgium I really do recommend you see more than just Bruges or Brussels. Really try to explore other areas and get a feel of the entire country. I found the Dutch to be very lovely people and very patient with my very limited Dutch language skills.

But do not ignore Bruges! It may be small and I’m sure many websites and guide books only recommend a few nights but I’ve stayed for up to a week (multiple times) and I always find something to do.

And don’t listen to Colin Farrell in “In Bruges”. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

 

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The Cliffs of Moher and County Kerry

I’m going completely out of order with these posts but just work with me here. I go with what I feel most inspired by.

We started our Ireland trip with a night in Belfast, then to Sligo, then to Galway. From Galway we headed to County Kerry to see the Cliffs of Moher and then head to our cottage outside of Kenmare. We rose early because the drive from our hotel in Galway to the Cliffs was a few hours. We wanted to try to arrive at the Cliffs before it got too busy. As we were checking out of the hotel the woman at the desk told us to expect rain. Rain in Ireland, shocking right? But she said the sky looked like it was on fire which meant we’d have rain all day long. I am not Irish and I don’t live in Ireland, I figured I’d just believe her and leave it at that.

Road trips in Ireland are something else. By the time we were on our way to the Cliffs we were used to driving. We knew to expect twists and turns and sheep and rain and sun and everything in between. We took a few wrong turns on our way but it wasn’t too awful getting lost in Ireland. The lady at the hotel was correct about the rain though. It rained and rained. As we drove up the mountains, weaving around the turns (in my mind going too fast but we survived) the rain just kept coming. I was kind of laughing to myself and I just knew it would be a wet trip to the Cliffs. We finally found our way to the parking lot. The wind was ridiculous. We got out of the car and I swear we could have been swept away. I was trying to put my jacket on and I could barely get my arms into the holes, I thought my jacket was going to fly away and I’d be without a raincoat for the duration of the trip.

But..

What. A. View.

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We were fighting against the elements up there. I’ve never felt wind like that before. I actually thought my contacts were going to fly right out of my eyes. The rain was stinging us as we were walking up the steps. I took some videos and posted to Instagram just so my friends could hear the wind (@tripwithbrit if you feel the need to check out my Instagram posts).

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My wife survived the Cliffs of Moher and lived to tell about it.

We walked around a bit, it was damn near impossible for me to hold my camera steady so unfortunately I didn’t get many pictures and the ones I did get weren’t great shots. But we still had a good time. Because of the early times plus the weather we didn’t really come across too many other tourists so it felt like we had the place to ourselves.

From the Cliffs we made our way to Kenmare which took over 3 hours. We planned on grocery shopping in Kenmare then we had to text the owner of the cabin that we were close. We found Kenmare with no problems, stopped for groceries and headed to the cabin.

We had no idea the trip would take a really kind of shitty turn that day and into the night. We found the cabin without any real issues. But google maps didn’t do a good job of showing us just how far up into the mountains the cabin actually was. Neither did the couple we rented from. At certain points the only thing between our car and certain death was a tiny rickety fence. If we had known how treacherous the drive was up there we would not have rented it. The owners were lovely people. So sweet and helpful. They had chocolates and a card for us. They showed us around the cabin and then left. They live across the street from the cabin so it was nice knowing if we had any issues they were close.

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The view from the cabin.

But, the cabin was not what we expected. The stove/oven was gas and the pilot light was out. And of course,  there were issues lighting it. As in, we couldn’t and had to get in our car and go across the street to have the owner help us. We finally got it to light so we could make dinner. But because we had so many issues with it we decided to make the pizza and the bread we bought from the store and just eat it as leftovers for the next few days. We settled in for the night, did some laundry, and relaxed. We had no phone service whatsoever. I couldn’t even connect to wifi calling. There was also no home phone. That made me feel a little nervous because if we had any issues we had no way to call out. Later in the evening I was walking around the cabin to just look around. They had framed photos all around. I picked one up, felt movement on my fingers and turned the frame over and what do you know. Spiders. A lot. Just hanging out on the frames, no big deal. My wife had the same issue near the router. Just so many bugs hanging out with us. Bugs caught in cobwebs throughout various areas of the house. Bugs stuck to the walls. Basically, bugs everywhere. We finally decided to go to bed. I hadn’t voiced my concerns to Angie and she didn’t say anything to me (yet). We went upstairs to go to bed. Bugs in the bedroom. The heat didn’t work in the bedroom. The temperatures that night were in the 40’s. Luckily there was a big thick comforter on the bed and we were able to go to sleep but neither one of us were very happy and I don’t know about her, but I didn’t sleep all that great that night.

We woke up the next morning and the plan was to leave the cottage early and spend all day in Kenmare. But I think we both woke up in pretty grumpy moods. She went to shower. There was basically no shower pressure (it was a trickle coming from the shower head) and either the water was scalding hot or ice cold. No in between. My wife has short hair, my hair is past the middle of my back. I was already annoyed at how long I’d have to spend in the shower trying to shampoo and condition my hair in a bathroom that wasn’t very clean with alternating hot and cold water. I asked my wife if it would be awful to leave the cabin and just get a hotel. I don’t rough it on vacation. I like a relatively bug-free place to sleep, with water pressure and a stove that worked properly and a place that is clean. She told me that was crazy, it would cost us too much money. I waited as long as I could to take a shower (in hopes there would miraculously be hot-but not scalding-water and water pressure). I went into the bathroom. Walked right back out to argue with my wife about a hotel and what do I see when I go back to the bedroom? My wife on her phone looking at hotels in the area. We found a cheap(ish) hotel in Killarney, booked it, and then I hightailed it to the shower. I don’t want to talk about that shower but we packed quickly, grabbed our gear and left that cabin and never looked back.

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Quick stop in Killarney National Park on our way to our hotel.

Belfast/The Giant’s Causeway

When we started planning our Ireland vacation I told my wife that Giant’s Causeway was the number one tourist spot I wanted to see in Ireland. The majority of our trip was to be spent in Ireland but we knew we’d spend at least a day in Northern Ireland. We originally were going to fly into Belfast and then out of Dublin but we purchased plane tickets in and out of Dublin for around 500 dollars cheaper. My wife slept on the plane and we drove from Dublin to Belfast after an overnight flight. That wasn’t my first choice and I was nervous the entire flight over. I did not sleep. We got our luggage and went to the Dan Dooley counter. We booked with them because they have such a good reputation on travel sites and I was able to get a few personal recommendations from former high school classmates who had also traveled to Ireland. They aren’t expensive in comparison to other companies and I liked that it was an Irish company. We upgraded the car to a Diesel, it was a Volkswagen. A little bigger than we had planned on but it worked out well.

We made it to Belfast without too much trouble. There were a few moments that I wanted to scream. The streets are very narrow in the city. Luckily there weren’t a lot of people out and about (it was a Sunday) so that was a relief. I’m sure had we flown in Monday-Friday it would have been worse. We checked into Tara Lodge on Cromwell Street and allow me to gush about this hotel. There is a small parking lot (and by small I do mean small) plus street parking. We were able to snag a spot in the lot. We arrived at the hotel around 2pm so we were able to check in. Our room was lovely. It overlooked the street but even with the windows open we didn’t hear much noise. It was small but not too small and very clean. We took showers and then went for a walk. We had a taxi tour booked to see the political murals. That was basically the entire reason for staying 1 night in Belfast. We stood outside in the rain for almost 40 minutes and the tour guide never showed up. We were incredibly disappointed. They have a great rating on Trip Advisor so it must have been a fluke. Disappointed we went and got some food, came back to the hotel and went to bed. We had stayed up all day to make sure we were awake for the tour so we were exhausted. We both woke around midnight and were wide awake. We decided to each take a melatonin because we could not deal with jet lag when we knew we would be doing a lot of driving in the morning. That helped and we both fell asleep again and slept until the alarm went off.

The next morning we woke up fairly early, took showers, got ready, and went down for breakfast. The Irish can throw down some breakfast! There was a small spread on the bar but also a menu. We both ordered pancakes and bacon and, well, let me just say that I wish I could have that bacon every day. It was so yummy. The hotel isn’t very big and it was so quiet so we were surprised at how busy the breakfast room was. Oh, and breakfast was included in the price of our room. So a double score!

We went back to the room, grabbed our luggage and checked out by 8am. Our first stop was the Dark Hedges (Game of Thrones fans know all about this). Boy, were we lucky when we got there. We made it before any tour buses were there to block the view. There were 3 women leaving as we pulled up and we the hedges all to ourselves.

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There is nothing quite like the Dark Hedges. They are mystifying. I only wished for some fog to really get the feel of them.

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We didn’t stay very long because we still had an hours drive to Giant’s Causeway  We made it in good time, paid for parking, paid the entrance fee and took the hike down. We arrived semi-early so not many tour buses were there yet and the parking lot wasn’t even half full. Giant’s Causeway is everything I hoped it would be.

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It really felt out of this world. Landscapes have never been a favorite subject for me to photograph but I think it is damn near impossible to take a bad picture in Ireland.

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I knew ahead of time to wear sensible shoes because I thought it went without saying but please, wear good sturdy shoes. I didn’t trip once (which is a surprise) but it would be easy to do. I get a little shaky when I get too high up with nothing to hold onto so I didn’t do anything crazy on the causeway. There are workers stationed throughout to help you if you trip and fall. They will also yell at you if you try to climb onto rocks that are off limits. I saw it happen, please listen to them when they tell you to stop.

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We stayed at the causeway for around an hour and a half to two hours. As we were hiking back up more and more people were walking down. We stopped in the gift shop and bought a few postcards, souvenirs, and a small piece of art that we are going to hang up somewhere in the house. As we were leaving we asked a street worker named Sammy where to eat nearby. He gave us a good recommendation right in Bushmills. A cute little cafe called Copper Kettle. We were not disappointed. It’s not a fancy restaurant by any means but it hit the spot. I had the vegetable soup with some wonderful soda bread. I liked the bread so much I wanted to ask for an entire loaf! My wife had (randomly) a baked potato with cole slaw and she said it was the best cole slaw she’s ever had. She liked it so much she found a recipe for it online and made it when we got home!

We left Bushmills to head to County Sligo. It was a long majestic drive. There were times I felt like we were on top of the world…

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Somewhere in County Sligo

 

To be continued…

Adventure may hurt you but monotony will kill you

Life.

It can really let you down, huh? Work, school, bills, sick parents, stress, gas mileage, new contacts and eyeglasses. It is always something isn’t it? But I guess the key is to not let life bring you down.

My new job didn’t work out. Well, it more than didn’t work out. I quit 8 days in and went back to my old job. I did not see that coming! Nobody saw that coming. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. I hate that clique but it’s at least true in this situation. I’m back at the old government job. I shouldn’t hate on it too much. I sit in a corner, alone, people leave me alone. I’ve learned a few lessons in leaving that job, starting a new one, leaving that job, then going to the old one.

Don’t get so close to co-workers. There is a reason they are just co-workers. They aren’t best friends. You shouldn’t share your life secrets with them. Don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to make friends. I have a few that I do consider ‘true’ friends. But while one spends 8 hours (or more) with co-workers that also doesn’t mean they should know details about your personal life.

Political and religious talk shouldn’t be discussed around the water cooler. That is a lesson I learned early on. But it seems some don’t understand that notion. I don’t care how much you hate Barack Obama or how much you despise gay marriage because it is the devil. Guess what? I doubt you care that I voted for Barack Obama or that I love the idea of gay marriage (since, you know, I’m gay).

Don’t be afraid to just be who you are. A lot of people don’t know that I am gay at the job. I came out after I started there and just never go around to coming out to co-workers. I find letting them know is probably for the best. It stops the gay marriage debate, at least around me. A co-worker didn’t know I was gay. He made an anti-gay remark. I came out to him in anger. I don’t want to have to do that.

But besides all this, besides the lessons I’ve learned recently, the ups and downs of life I have to say. I have the best life. I am 30 years old, in school for a degree that requires very little studying thanks to working in the field for so long. I have a good job even if it is a job that I wasn’t a big fan of. I make good money, I have insurance, I have life insurance. I have a wonderful, amazing, incredibly patient fiance. The 20th is our anniversary. 3 years. I can’t believe I found somebody as great as her. I have an amazing family. A family that I have grown even closer to after my step-dads death. I have two cats I love to death. Some will scoff but those two furballs are my babies. I dare you to say otherwise!

I have had incredible opportunities in my short life. At 30 years old I have traveled more than anyone I (personally) know. During my road trip through Europe last year I posted this list on Facebook. It was my lessons for road-tripping through Europe.

1) Wear sunscreen even if you are in the car most of the time. I now have severe sunburn on my arms.
2) The French countryside is stunning.
3) I want to retire in Switzerland.
4) Europe needs to put street signs on their roads.
5) Lilly is very patient for a 3 year old.
6) Mont Blanc is beautiful.
7) Don’t eat pizza then get into a hot car. Hello carsickness.
8) I have experienced more than most people and I know how lucky I am.

I worried I came across as ‘uppity’ in that post but it’s true. I’ve had amazing opportunities to see the world. And I’m only just getting started. I worry sometimes that I annoy people on social media in regards to my travel updates. But I’m to the point where I don’t care. Why should I? I work hard to take these trips. I spend a lot of time planning. I spend too much money on guide books that I don’t often spend much time reading. (Don’t tell my fiance that).

I can’t let life bring me down. So I can’t travel the world 365 days a year. I have responsibilities here. It should be enough that I travel at the very least once a year. It should be enough that I have seen more of the world than most people I know. Every day I am yearning to see another place. Or hell, go back to a country I’ve been to just so I can experience it again. I need to try to remember to look on the bright side of things. Is immersing myself in all things travel a good or bad thing? I’m going to go with it being a great thing! Why not, right?

Until next time…

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My new motto.