A Cuppa Cosy Summer Holiday 2020 – Belgium

Ah, Belgium. This was our second time in Belgium and I’m putting that very lightly as we visited a museum in Bastogne before heading to Luxembourg last year (we also went to Luxembourg this year). This year we wanted to not only stop in Bastogne again to see a couple more stops, but also to see Brussels, Belgium. There are a couple of really pretty cities in Belgium (Utrecht and Brugge are the tops), but we decided on Brussels.

Before we get into Brussels though, I want to talk about our stops on the way to Belgium. Our first stop was the Bayeux Cathedral. The Bayeux Cathedral is easily one of the coolest and most unique cathedrals I think I have yet to see. Consecrated in the late 11th century, this church is not only neat on both the exterior and interior, but also was the original home of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Our second stop was in Bastogne. After leaving Bayeux, we headed to Bastogne to look at the Foxholes and stop at the Airborne Museum in Bastogne. The Foxholes are exactly what you think they would be, but something about it just felt like walking on sacred ground. I think because we all know the story, we’ve heard the names, there is a bit more of a personal note, that walking the forest just felt…different to walking other places.

From the foxholes we went over to the 101 Airborne Museum. The museum is located in the former officer’s mess building of the Belgian Army, which was also used by the German Army during the occupation. Once the war ended, it was used as a Red Cross Hospital. It has been transformed into a museum that displays a collection of items from the fighting as well as a basement that has been transformed into a bomb shelter.

The museum is incredible, BUT fair warning on going down to the basement area. I would not say that it is…kid friendly, but it is important to experience. Walking down the stairs you are taken to a small dark room where you experience what it would be like to live during the battle for Bastogne and that was just…something that was hard to do. I don’t even have the words for that experience, just that I cannot imagine. From there you then walk along hallways that show various scenes (recreated…with mannequins- again not necessarily suitable for kids, depending on your children’s level of coping and understanding) from the battle. This includes the men fighting through crevices in the defenses of the building, to surgery scenes, to items that were found in the nearby forests and on the streets above. It was something to see and experience and something I will not forget for a long time.

Untitled Design 71

Brussels has long been a settlement, but it became fully known in the late 600’s when a chapel was built on the banks of the Senne River. The city was then officially founded about 300 years later and has been a place of rebellions, battles, and economic development. We spent most of our day in Brussels walking around the old town area, snacking on waffles, and absorbing the sights. Brussels was a really cool mix of old world and modern, with a hint of opulence and we enjoyed our day exploring. We stayed in a hotel called Hotel Noga and were very pleased with our room and the service.

IMG_6854We started off with a breakfast of…(drumroll please)…waffles. I mean, we couldn’t go all the way to Belgium and not have some waffles. We stopped at a spot in the National Galerie called Mokafe and had some delicious waffles, Strawberry for myself, chocolate for the boys, and berry variety for my husband. Absolutely delicious. Fun fact about the waffles, there are actually two varieties: Brussels and Liege. Brussels are hard rectangle and topped with powdered sugar and some variety of berry or chocolate. Liege waffles are more oval and tend to be more of your…grab and go waffle. The sugar in Liege waffles is also baked directly into the waffle.

After filling up on the delicious waffle and cappuccino breakfast, we headed out to wander. We started our day at the Church of St. Michael and St. Gudula.

This is a relatively “modern” cathedral and church, having only gained cathedral status in the early 1960’s. The church itself dates back to the 11th century, with completion in the 16th, and is currently used for ceremonies of national interest (it is host to royal family events). It was stunning, one of those churches you can’t help but admire.

From there we headed through more of the Altstadt and over to the Grand-Place of Brussels. This seemed to be a common stop for us throughout the day as we gravitated back here several times- which makes sense as it is the central square of Brussels.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the most important tourist destination of Brussels, with guildhalls, Museum of the City of Brussels, and the Town Hall rising up around the square itself. The buildings are displays of opulence with gold touches and gothic architecture. It was voted (at one point) the most beautiful square in Europe and I think I would agree. The square is opulent, but not overbearingly so. It’s definitely the heart and was full of life each time we were there.

We also managed to see Manneken Pis. Yep, you read that right. Manneken Pis is a fountain sculpture of a little boy peeing into the fountain. The first mention of the fountain was from the 15th century when it is mentioned about drinking water for the residents. The first bronze statue was placed in the 17th century, with the current statue replacing it in the mid 20th century. The Mannekin Pis has been the subject of several thefts (of which the punishment was severe) and several legends (which are all quite…interesting to read about). One of the Mannekin Pis traditions is to be dressed up in a variety of different costumes. These can range from famous individuals, to sport options, to holiday attire. Overall though, the Mannekin Pis is a symbol to the people of Brussels; a symbol of the sense of humor that they share and their independence of mind.

The final thing we attraction we saw in Brussels was The Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

First commissioned by Leopold II in the early part of the 20th century after being fascinated by Paris. His original intent was to model his church off of the Sacre Coeur in Parish (HERE) with a street similar to Champs Elysees (HERE) connecting it to the main city center. The Church was consecrate in 1951, awarded the designation of “Basilica Minor” in 1952, completed in 1969, and is now the 5th largest church in the world. This church also holds two museums, The Black Sisters Museum and the Museum of Modern Religious Art. You are also able to go up to a balcony right under the dome to get a bird’s eye view of Brussels.

Once again, this was incredible due to the sheer size. You can definitely feel the more sleek, modern (almost non frivolous, sparse look), art deco style of the church throughout, but the size is just a site to behold.

After finishing up with the Basilica, we wandered back towards the main center square, did a little shopping and picked up some dinner before heading to our hotel. We definitely did not see everything that Brussels has to offer, not even close, but I feel like we got a good amount in our one day there, and were able to get the “feel” of the city.

A Cuppa Cosy Summer Holiday 2020 – Normandy, France

We spent a total of 2 ½ days in Normandy (including our to “travel days” to and from as we did things on those days). You’ll have seen my post devoted to Mont-Saint-Michel already (if not it’s HERE), but we did so much more in Normandy than that. Normandy has played such a role in World History being a landing site and the beginning of the Allied Forces taking charge during World War 2, however before that it was just…an area of France. The beaches that were stormed were just beaches and the area is absolutely gorgeous. During our time in Normandy, save for the Mont-Saint-Michel reprieve, we focused very heavily on World War 2 history. My husband had a long list of places that he wanted to see, and we managed to see most of them. Not only that, but our children were able to learn and understand what happened during that war, but I’ll get into that a bit later.

Untitled Design 69

After checking in to our hotel (we stayed at an Ibis in Port-en-Bessin-Huppain which I would recommend), we decided to just hit the ground running and head off to our first spot. It only felt right to pay homage and respect to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice before anything else, so we started at the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach.

The cemetery was originally a temporary American cemetery established in June 1944 and was the first American Cemetery on European Soil in the war. The cemetery has 9,385 graves, most of those who perished in the D-Day Landings and following operations, as well as a Walls of the Missing monument that contains 1,557 names. There is a visitor center within the cemetery, although this was closed due to Covid and there was also a path from the cemetery to the beach, but that closed due to security a few years back. You are able to walk the entire cemetery, through several different pathways (should you choose to walk along the beach side, the center, or the roadside), the wall of the missing, and the monument that details out the landings and invasion.

From the cemetery we went over to Point du Hoc. We wanted to make sure we were able to walk the area before it closed (as the locations with centers have opening and closing times, the beaches do not-you can walk those at any time), so we passed walking the beach until after. Pointe du Hoc is a little west of the center of Omaha Beach and a Ranger battalion was tasked with attacking and capturing the fortifications. Pointe du Hoc is a wall. A rock wall.

The Germans had a completed 4 casemates that housed guns, an observation bunker, and anti-aircraft guns.  The plan was to land by sea, scale the cliff and capture the area. There were quite a few problems that arose during the attack, a timing setback, the ladders weren’t long enough, and the second wave of soldiers did not get the flares in time and wound up landing on the beach rather than scaling the cliff. Now you are able to walk amongst the paths of the original fortifications and see the various gun mounts, observation deck, and bomb craters from World War 2. The site starts with a large plaque detailing what happened, and pointing out information before you start walking through the path. It ends at the monument to the battle.

We went to two beaches while we were in Normandy, Omaha and Utah Beach. I’m not going to go into all the history of what happened at the beaches as we should all have a basic understanding of D-Day and, quite honestly, there is so much information about the pre landings, landings, and ongoing battles afterward that it would be too much for this one post. However, I will do a brief rundown as to what we saw at each and a little comparison.

We went to Omaha Beach first.

Omaha Beach is probably the most “well known” of the beaches, the one that is featured in a lot of the films/movies, and the one that is talked about frequently. At Omaha Beach you are able to see the remains of the temporary harbor that was built after landing during low tide, as well as the memorial. The memorial is located at the center of the beach and features three independent sections. It was an incredible bit of time walking the same steps that a soldier might have taken.

Utah Beach was our second beach, visited on our second day, and it was another incredible experience.

Utah Beach was different from Omaha in that there was a lot more artifacts to explore. Utah Beach had one of the Huey Boats, had the anti-tank obstacles, had some tanks, and the museum also has airplanes and other items from D-Day. Our boys were able to have a much better understanding of what happened as they were able to see and visualize what it looked like.  It was something special to, once again stand there, but then see and wander through the various areas that…really haven’t changed in these 76 years.

After leaving Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey on our second day in the region, we headed over to the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Sainte-Mere-Eglise is one of the well-known towns from the various battles in France during World War 2. The town was under German control and the airborne paratroopers were to drop in the town during the night. What led was one of many firefights to liberate the French town. Over 3 days the Americans managed to maintain control of the bridges through the town, liberate, and continue to move forward. Sainte-Mere-Eglise is one of the French towns that continues to hold the American Military and the night of liberation in the highest esteem. The town is milestone 0 of The Freedom Path which is the path taken by Patton’s 3rd Army from Sainte-Mere-Eglise to Bastogne.

The Airborne Museum was born out of a desire to continue the memories of those who gave all and of that night that the town was liberated, and all of World War 2. This was one of those museums that you just have to visit. Beyond the typical artifacts and such that were used in the war (which were incredible) the museum has debuted an interactive iPad experience. They also offer a simulated jump experience that replicates what it would have been like to jump during World War 2 as well as what the ensuing battle would have been like. Excellent for both kids and adults as it’s a bit tamer than some of the other WW2 museums we went to (like Bastogne…but that’s another post).

The final place we went to on our final morning in Normandy was Longues-sur-Mer battery.

This is a World War 2 German artillery battery that is still relatively intact. On another cliffside, this battery is between Omaha and Gold Beaches. This is the ONLY battery in Normandy to retain all the original guns in their original positions. Walking the path, you are able to see the 4 casemates and the observation tower all fully intact, as well as walk through the guns in the casemates. I don’t think we could have picked a better spot to end our time in Normandy as this was just…incredible. To see the guns in the places they would have been, the cliffside as it was, the debris in the water, the view from the observation tower…there are no words.

IMG_7026.JPG

And on that note, we drove out of Normandy and over to Belgium.