Rotterdam family day (The Netherlands)

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We arrived in Rotterdam last night and were immediately welcomed by my Mum’s cousin (P) and her family, including my great aunt and great uncle. This is the Indonesian side of my family and I am at once struck by the strength of the Indonesian culture of hospitality and good cooking. We visit Tante (Aunty) E for dinner and she has cooked up a serious storm. A storm that is enjoyed with lots of stories and laughter. It’s my second time meeting Ome (Uncle) C and Tante E but I can’t recall the first time – that was about 25 years ago at a party. It’s amazing to be surrounded by family including Mum’s cousins and their families who have also come for dinner.
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By the time we wake on our final day in The Netherlands we are refreshed and ready to explore Rotterdam local style. P and her husband (M) have kindly taken time off work to show us around their city. We came to Rotterdam for a day last year but didn’t make it past the Maritime Museum and Market Hall so we are excited to see something more of this famous Dutch place.
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The first thing that strikes me is just how important shipping is to this port city. P works at the port so she is a wealth of information. But even without that it’s obvious that the people of Rotterdam are closely tied to the sea. There’s all sorts of boats here from canal barges to luxury yachts. There’s even the obligatory sinking boats filled with water rotting away. And all of this right in the heart of the city, not tucked away out of sight in some industrial or seaside area.
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Rotterdam is also obviously a city with a sense of humour. The Buttplug Gnome is actually meant to be a tribute to Santa Clause holding a festive bell. It may have caused outrage with the far right of Dutch politics but it is still standing with no indication it is going to be pulled down anytime soon. M proudly shows it to us with a Cheshire cat grin on his face waiting to capture our reactions. Only in The Netherlands …
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We continue to explore the city on foot. P and M know all the prettiest places to walk. There’s some green space along a canal with older style mansions and churches on the opposite bank. I could walk here all day and can imagine it being lovely for picnics in the summer months. Make sure you picnic on the far side of the canal though because a tram track runs on the city side. I will miss the historic architecture of Europe when I return home.
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M points out the Pauluskerk (Paul’s Church). This famous building is a place where people who are homeless or addicted to drugs can come for help. It is located almost in the heart of Rotterdam and has an architectural design that is impossible to ignore. I like the juxtaposition of this loud building with the way Western societies like to hide the reality of homelessness and drug addiction. It cannot be ignored when a place so linked with these circumstances is so clearly identifiable.
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We walk past the casino. It looks like a modest building. I am struck by the lack of fanfare here at the entrance. And also by the museum pieces in the window. I rarely gamble putting maybe $30 a year through pokie (slot) machines a year and never buying myself a lottery or scratch-it ticket. My work colleagues jokingly tell me that this is because I am Dutch and don’t like to part with my money. P and M also joke that they do not really like to gamble either. The museum pieces are interesting though. Particularly for me as an Australian where pokie (slot) machines are a dangerous hobby that ruins many lives.
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We continue our wanderings into the city centre past the impressive and imposing Stadhuis (Town Hall). There’s a statue outside of Hugo De Groot who we first met at Loeverstein Castle where we heard the story of his escape from imprisonment in a book chest. It’s an interesting to tie our second and our final days of this trip together. The city centre is like many city centres of the world: dedicated to shopping. It highlights for me one of the concerns I have about the world and our lives in the West. I watched a video some time back about how we all believe we have jobs as lawyers, business people, teachers, bank tellers, shop assistants, cleaners, nurses and what-not. But actually, our jobs are to shop. We are merely encouraged to work so that we feel good about spending because we earn money. Because the wealthiest one percent get rich off us buying “stuff” we don’t want or need just to keep up with the Joneses or to feel happy despite our imprisonment in jobs we hate. The dedication of so much street space to retail therapy around the world is only serving to prove the truth of this to me. And I wonder how we can escape it.
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Like last year we browse again through the Market Hall with it’s gorgeously presented selection of foods. You can buy most things here from a massive assortment of cheese through to toffee apples. There’s food to take home and food to eat here. The choice is your’s. We’ve eaten lunch and know there is a repeat of last night’s massive dinner waiting for us at Tante E and Ome C’s house so just feast with our eyes.
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It’s late afternoon now and we are almost back at the car park. Our final stop is the famous cube house complex. We saw it on our way along the canal this morning but are now walking through the complex. For three Euros you can enter one of the houses. Inside the houses are larger than they look from the outside. And, yes, the floors are flat, not sloping. The design is almost a perfect use of every centimeter of available space. While it’s certainly in the style of tiny house living, it’s not cramped. It’s quite incredible really how we are so used to a certain design of house that our minds take a little while to adjust to the concept of these cubes. But I certainly think they would make fantastic living spaces, particularly with the convenience of being in the city centre.
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And so the sun sets on our adventures in The Netherlands and Belgium. We enjoy one final meal with P and M at Tante E and Ome C’s house. One final drive along the Dutch highway network to Schiphol to drop off the rental car. And a night at Citizen M Schiphol (word to the wise, check which location you have booked). Tomorrow we depart for home with a fifteen hour stop over in Guangzhou.

This trip has been brilliant. While we would have liked to stay longer, we do have some time restrictions due to us both working and wanting to earn enough to take two or three more trips this year. And we’d rather go somewhere new for two weeks than not go anywhere at all.

De Haar Castle (Utrecht, The Netherlands)

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We leave Leeuwarden to drive to Rotterdam where my mum’s cousin has invited us to stay with her family. It’s only a short detour from the highway to visit De Haar Castle. After seeing photos of its fairy tale shape online, we just have to visit. The castle is set in the countryside near Utrecht amidst the typically Dutch green grass, canals and dairy cows.
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A castle has existed on this site since 1391. As is the story with many castles, fire and war damaged the castle over the centuries. It passed from family to family and generation to generation until, finally, in the late 1800s the castle was handed down to Etienne Gustave Frederic Baron van Zuylen van Nyeveldt van de Haar. The castle was in great disrepair at that time but, fortunately for us, Etienne married Helene de Rothschild of the famous and rich Rothschild family. As a result he came into money and engaged Pierre Cuypers as his architect to rebuild the castle. Etienne and Helene have passed away. Their daughters inherited the castle but couldn’t afford the hideously expensive upkeep and inheritance tax so passed ownership of the castle to a foundation tasked with its upkeep. They still have the rights to stay at the castle in September each year.
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The castle and its grounds are so beautiful that no words are required and I’ll leave you with the photos.
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New Year’s Day 2017 (Coevorden, The Netherlands)

We wake late. Breakfast is a typical Dutch feast of sandwiches topped with sliced cold meats, cheeses and chocolate sprinkles. It’s all quite delicious. The bread in The Netherlands is way better than at home. It’s fresh and there’s tens of varieties to select from the bakery. I am glad this isn’t our breakfast at home or I’d be as big as a house.

After breakfast we relax on the couch catching up on Messages from family and friends around the world. My godparents also chill reading the paper and Facebook. It’s the perfect way to start the new year.
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Around 1pm we head off to the Ganzenduik (literally translated to Goose Dive). We walk there through the village. There’s lots of people at the pond where we will be taking our icy cold plunge. The air temperature is 1.5’C and the water temperature is about 3.7’C. None of my family are joining me in the traditional New Year’s Day swim but I’m not about to miss out on the fun. I did the same thing last year but the air temperature was 6’C then.
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There’s swimmers in costume.
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My costume isn’t anywhere near as good but by coincidence the hat and bow tie I won in the present game last night match my swimming shorts, making it look like I planned my costume.
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The water is COLD!!!! But I feel alive and am glad I went for the swim. It’s fantastic fun.
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We walk back home along a canal. The German border is along the path so we step briefly into Germany before continuing our walk. It’s a good laugh. The rest of the afternoon we relax some more. I like this balance.
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But our fun day isn’t over yet. The relaxation is temporary. My godparents have reserved a table at the Coevorden Castle for dinner. I am castle-crazy so to have dinner in a castle is pretty amazing. The food tastes great and the company (my godparents and Paul) is even better. After dinner the staff let us explore the castle unguided. It’s mostly set up with various banquet and dining areas. But it’s still very much a castle.
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And then we step outside to discover it has started to snow. The only thing I’m crazy about more than castles is snow. We rug up and walk home in the snow. It’s perfect. The village is gorgeous. And it’s quite romantic … especially watching Paul speak with animation to my family. What a way to start 2017!
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Westerbork Transit Camp Memorial (The Netherlands)

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The snow stopped falling in the early hours of the morning and the sun started to melt it by the time we got up and left the house. We did still get to have some fun scraping it off the car though. I am sure that sentence sounds odd to those who live in snowy places. But for us the snow is a novelty that we never experience at home so we are like children discovering something new when we scrape it off the car.

We drive to the Westerbork Transit Camp Memorial. The camp was originally a refugee camp for Jews fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, the Nazis took the camp over and transformed the once safe-haven into part of their regime of reign of terror. Gypsies and Jews from all over The Netherlands were rounded up and sent to Westerbork for transportation to concentration and death camps further east. Approximately 120,000 people were transported through Westerbork by the Nazis. The most famous of these was Ann Frank who was among the 60,000 people transported from Westerbork to Auschwitz-Birkenau near Krakow in Poland.
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Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau, the original camp no longer stands here. But there is a moving open air memorial and a museum. The memorial is a public space that can be accessed for free by walking along paths through the woods from a nearby carpark. However, you have to pay entry to the museum, which includes access to a shuttle bus to the memorial (cars cannot travel the road to the memorial itself). The 2km walk from the carpark through the woods is pretty and (being The Netherlands) flat.
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It’s a cold and bleak day. We leave the warmth of the museum and make our way to the memorial. The first thing that strikes me are the two railway carriages. Identical to those we saw in Auschwitz-Birkenau last year the sight of these carriages fills me with a sense of the horror that awaited those who transited through this camp. Not only does it make me think of what we saw in Auschwitz-Birkenau last year but now I also think about the long journey those who were sent there had to endure. Krakow is a long way from Westerbork. What makes this memorial even more moving is the roll call of the names of all the prisoners who were transported. You could probably stand here for a whole day and not hear them all.
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Stones have been laid here to honour each of the individuals who transited through this camp. Almost all were murdered by the Nazis. Some died on the long train journeys, others of malnutrition in concentration camps, some by being shot and many in the gas chambers. Photos between the stones show the faces of Jews and Gypsies. It highlights the inhumanity that was shown to ordinary children, women and men who’s only crime was to be born into the wrong religion and the wrong place and time. The same crime committed by the Syrians and other refugees in the world today who are fleeing torture and death in their home countries.
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Large coffins representing each of the camps to which Jews and Gypsies were sent line a pathway. Each names the respective camp and has inscribed the number of people who were sent there. The numbers are too large to comprehend. All are in the thousands. Some in the tens of thousands. It’s sobering and sad.
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Leaving Westerbork we are both quiet. We’re not depressed just moved. It’s probably a good thing that it’s winter and the days are short. Heading west towards our next stop in Leeuwarden we watch the setting sun. It places a boundary on our emotions and soon we are back in the present enjoying the farmlands and golden afternoon glow. After all, The Netherlands of today is a beautiful country of peace.

New Year’s Eve in Coevorden (Drente, The Netherlands)

We check out of our hotel in Bruges and hit the highway north. We have a date with my godparents and cousin in Coevorden far away in the north of Holland near the German border. It will take us about four hours to get there. Not far by Australian standards but it will require us to pretty much cross an entire country here in Europe.

The drive is pretty. We drive through flat green farmlands where cattle graze. Villages slip by with reed-roofed houses. We cross a low rise where the temperatures are below freezing and ice crystals have dusted all the trees. Everything is white. We contemplate stopping but the ollie bollen (deep fried dough and sultana balls) are calling.
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We arrive in Coevorden just in time to walk from my godparents’ house to my cousin’s house. My cousin’s wife is cranking out the fresh home made ollie bollen like a champion. They taste as delicious as I remember from last year.
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My cousin’s kids and their friends are lighting fire crackers in the street. They are young but the fire crackers are less insane than those we will fire off at midnight. The kids are loving it. It’s our second New Year with them in a row and the kids are now talking about “Paul and Andrew who come every year”. It’s adorable.
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We head back to my godparents’ home for dinner. My cousin, his wife and their kids come too. We sit in front of the open fire chatting. There’s a year to catch up on. The kids gently correct my Dutch when I use the incorrect words or grammar. I appreciate the help.
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The kids go to bed and we play a present game. It’s odd to have gifts on New Year but in Holland gifts aren’t usually exchanged at Christmas so it makes sense. The game is a laugh. We have dice and cards that dictate what we can do with the gifts we select. Everyone has bought three gifts valued at about three Euros each. We select and unwrap gifts according to the cards and dice. We also swap and steal gifts according to the same cards and dice. Three hours pass and we end up with a selection of gifts each. It’s all random fun and we’ve laughed our guts out.
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And then it’s time. The clock strikes 12 and it’s hugs all round. Outside the fire works have begun. Last year we stood in the street where there were lots of young people but this year we’re in my godparents’ backyard. The difference is that it’s less scary and more enjoyable. There’s little risk tonight of fire works hitting us if they go wrong. And we can duck inside when it gets too cold. It’s a blast (no pun intended). We stay out in the cold as long as we can keep our eyes open and then we climb the stairs to our bedrooms (yes plural). My godparents have bedrooms for their grandkids and tonight that’s where we will sleep – each in one small child’s bed (the children are not there off course).

So ends 2016. A challenging and unsettled year. There’s been lots of fun travel. I’ve had four different jobs in three different industries. I’ve felt unsettled about the future, trying to find a way to have flexibility, income and freedom all at once. But been a good year because Paul became my husband, giving me a travel buddy for life 😉 .

A second day in Bruges (Flanders, Belgium)

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We wake to clear skies and a crisp clear winter’s day. Where yesterday felt cold, today feels joyful despite the cold temperatures. We set outside and the city looks even more gorgeous than it did yesterday. Here we are in the middle of Bruges with a whole day stretched out ahead of us to enjoy.
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Our first stop is the cathedral precinct where tall spires stab the sky. The Church of Our Lady Bruges looks closed and there’s a sign about buying tickets at the hospital museum across the lane. I’d read that the hospital museum could be interesting so we buy over priced tickets. We will learn throughout the day that the museum curators of Bruges are old-fashioned and still believe dumping a heap of barely curated oddities in a space is acceptable in the twenty-first century. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by some of the more modern museums we’ve experienced in The Netherlands, Poland and South Korea. After this visit to the museum we decide not to bother with any other museums and just to enjoy cathedrals, castles and open spaces. Fortunately, there’s plenty of those to enjoy.
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The Church of Our Lady of Bruges is partially open and entry ends up being free (tickets will be sold after the renovation is completed though). The church is a mix of peaceful and hectic, as are many major religious spaces we’ve visited. The faithful pray. Pilgrims kneel. Tourists click away with their cameras and smart phones. And the stained glass windows continue to watch on as they always have.
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We walk through Oud Sint-Jan. It’s crawling with tourists carrying Lonely Planet guide books. That is a sight we will see all day here as it is the winter high season. The apotek (pharmacy) museum was included in our hospital museum tickets. The apotek is interesting but again there are irrelevant displays mixed in here, making for a confused experience. We spend more time trying to take photos of the courtyard through the windows of the museum.
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The Cathedral of St Salvador is our next stop. Again, restoration work is underway but still the cathedral is stunning. We ooh and aah our way around. I light some prayer candles and we buy a candle made by a refugee. This is the common theme here in mainland Europe – the refugees. From what we have seen, the anger against them has eased and a more humanitarian approach is being taken by those Europeans we speak with. Everyday people tell stories of visiting refugees in their local areas to help them complete paperwork, learn language and engage with culture. Everywhere there are small stalls selling items to raise money to help the refugees. And some houses even have stickers on the windows advertising that they will accept refugees into their homes. It’s refreshing to see and hear after all the negative press the refugees get at home in Australia. Every time I travel to Europe or talk about it people say “but aren’t you afraid of the refugees” or “you can’t go there because of the refugees”. But here in Europe, in the thick of the crisis, solutions are being found, especially as the refugees’ stories are learned.
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Leaving the church we walk to the Beguinage. The walk takes us near the train station where massive tour groups follow flag-carrying guides briskly into the centre of Bruges. I feel immediately exhausted as we try to wind our way between the groups. They’ve paid lots of money to be guided through the city so they push to the front at every good view point to take a quick photo and continue. We stop longer, taking photos of buildings, playing with the light and enjoying the sunshine. My recommendation is to always travel independently – Europe is easy and safe for travel so there’s no need to tie yourself to a guided tour.
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The Beguinage is gorgeous. White buildings line a large wooded square. It’s easy to see why women chose to live here. Formerly a convent, the Beguinage is now a place secular women of prayer live spiritual lives. One house is open for the public and it’s worth a look. I feel calm here after the hectic tour group parade outside the Beguinage’s walls.

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We walk some more from the Beguinage to Gentpoort. I have to go inside because it’s a castle. I can’t help myself with castles. We look through the bolt holes. And walk onto the roof where we can take in views of old and new Bruges. In the medieval days the city gates were closed at night so this would have been a busy place at sunset. Pubs lined the outside of the gates in those days because people who didn’t make it back into the city on time would need somewhere to stay. I can just imagine how hectic this place would have been back then.

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Our final stop for the walk is The Church of the Holy Maria. It too is being renovated but is less popular than other churches in the city. We are the only people there, other than the guide who sits at the entrance to offer apologies to guests for the renovation works. The words of wisdom at the entrance to the church touch me.

We end the day with dinner at an Italian restaurant near our hotel. It’s typical tourist fare. You don’t come to Bruges for the food (other than the waffles and chocolate) because, like so many tourist towns, there’s no need to impress for repeat business so prices are high and quality is low. That said’ we had a fantastic day and then head out for one last walk in wintery Bruges before bed.

Walking Bruges (Flanders, Belgium)

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Clip clop clip clop. The sounds of horse drawn carts greets us as we walk out of our hotel onto the wet cobblestones of Bruges. I’ve used the app to create something of a route for us to walk today. It looks like there’s something to see at every turn.

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We start our exploration in the Market Square with it’s gorgeous architecture. The shape of the shop fronts is emphasised by the bright colours. Its particularly stunning given the grey skies and freezing cold air. The only thing missing is snow.

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We wander the square. There’s bicycles parked everywhere and some are particularly funky. Clearly this is a funky town. The Christmas Markets are already in full swing with ice skating, shops selling warm clothes and Christmas decorations, and of course Belgian waffles and hot chocolate. I love this part of winter in Europe. We came across it last year in Krakow too.

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Our walk takes us past some incredible gothic architecture. Like this building in Jan van Eyckplein (Jan van Eyck Square). I can see why cousins were so insistent we visit Bruges . There’s not a dull corner or square to be found here. It’s all immensely impressive.

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We walk down small steets near the outer edges of the old city. Buildings that look like old farm houses sit here marking times gone past. The windows typically have stained glass panes and brightly painted shutters. The Folk Arts Museum is located in this area. It’s well worth the visit with each room representing a different aspect of life in Medieval and 18th Century Bruges. I am particularly fascinatd to learn that the smoking of cigarettes was introduced to Europe after Columbus’s journeys to the Americas. The guy who first introduced smoking to Europe was jailed for seven years as a witch. Unfortunately for society after his release smoking took off and has been killing people ever since.

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Kruispoort (Cross Gate) marks the entry to the old city.

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We’re hungry now so go in search of lunch. Unfortunately, the Brugians take ater the French and kitchens close at 2pm. It’s about -1’C but there’s nothing else for it but to have a picnic. Paul is less impressed than me as we sit on a park bench under trees with icicles hanging from their branches. Fortunately, the windmills make a pretty background.

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We almost have to walk just to stay warm. Even though we’re well dressed, this is weather for sitting by a warm fire. The cold and mist does add atmosphere to the architecture though. Especially the Harry Potter-esque guild building. And the brightly painted “modern” residences, which reflect beautifully on the still canal water. We are still not used to the near-perpetual sunset effects of the light with the sun sitting so low in the sky. I think this is part of what I like about winter in Europe – the colours brought on by this low sun.

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All that’s left to do to end our walk is to indulge in a fresh Belgian waffle with melted Belgian chocolate. We warm up in our hotel room revelling in the taste of our first Belgian chocolates bought right here in Bruges before hitting the streets for a wintery evening walk in the chill air.

Tomorrow promises more Bruges beauty.