Havana, Cuba: Crumbling Colonial Architecture, Classic American Cars, and the Warm Cuban People

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Havana, Cuba

One of the United States’ closest southern neighbors, the Republic of Cuba is a small communist nation.  Cuba is an island that sits in the Caribbean Sea bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Its early history is of Spanish Conquest of the native tribes. Spain, England, and even the United States have overseen this land. Americans invested heavily in Cuba and it was their play land. At one time, there was some thought to making Cuba a state of the United States of America. In 1959, a revolution under the leadership of Fidel Castro ousted Cuban President Batista. Castro nationalized the American business holdings in Cuba and established relations with Soviet Russia, the start of the strained relationship between the two countries and the embargo imposed by the United States that still exists today.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Miramar Neighborhood in Havana, Cuba

I want to preface my comments for my international readers. Visiting Cuba is a unique experience for Americans, having long been denied the opportunity to do so by our own government. My comments will be colored by this history. We can now visit the country legally under very specific restrictions.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Havana, Cuba

Havana is the capital of Cuba.   It sits west of center on the northern side of this long, narrow island shaped like a crocodile. Santiago de Cuba was at one time the capital; it is our other Cuban port of call on this cruise. Santiago is on the southern and eastern side of the island.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Apple Stores have a different look in Havana, Cuba

Diego Velazquez founded colonial Havana in 1515. It was named for a local Taino chief. It started as a trading post, but became the most active Spanish port in the 18th century. Its natural harbor had to be defended and the channel where our ship entered is lined with the remains of several Spanish forts. Our ship is docked at the San Francisco Terminal.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Our berth in Havana, Cuba, the San Francisco Terminal

Boris and I had breakfast on our balcony today. We are heading out on separate tours.   Boris originally booked us both on the Hemingway Tour, but I wanted one that was more general. Ok, I admit that part of the attraction is that part of my tour takes place in an American classic car. Their American owners abandoned many of these cars-from the 40s and 50s-here when they had to flee the country. Many of these vehicles still have their original parts.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Revolution Square, Havana, Cuba

Boris loves Hemingway’s work. He has gone to many of the locations Hemingway frequented, especially in Paris. His selected tour is perfect for him. If I am lucky, I can talk him into going back to the Floridita this afternoon.

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Princess Natasha is going to ride in style through Havana, Cuba

Today we checked in for our tour on the ship; so everyone on the tour is passing through customs and immigration at the same time. It was a much quicker process than last night. We were taken by bus to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Here we were allowed to pick our classic convertible (or “yank tank” as they are called by the locals). I chose a bright yellow 1951 Chevy Delux. I thought of my dad whose proudest bachelor possession was a 1960 white Chevy convertible. It was part of the reason he was able to snag my mom.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Photo of the beautiful tile work in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Havana

Each vehicle has a driver and a guide who sit in the front seat. In my case the driver was Eric who is also the owner of the car. He has an engineering background and maintains the car himself. It is in excellent condition. My guide introduced himself as George. With a puzzled expression I asked if that was the name his mother gave him. He showed me his nametag that identifies him as Jorge, but he gave me the English version. I called him Jorge. Princess Natasha sat in the back seat.

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Natasha at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Havana

Havana is a city of crumbling Colonial architecture and warm people. The government has attempted to retain the colonial facades where possible, but in many cases completely demolished and rebuilt the interiors. This is often the cheaper process. In some parts of the city, the façade is crumbling but the interiors have been renovated because the building is “owned” by several families and no one of those families takes responsibility for the exterior. However, for the most part, the structures are just lived in as they stood with some “make shift” adjustments to provide power. Only 10% of the country enjoys air conditioning.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Miramar Neighborhood, Havana, Cuba

We drove first along the Malecon, the seawall “bench” enjoyed by the Cuban people each evening. We saw a lot of people out there at midnight on a weeknight when we returned from the Tropicana show. The breeze off the water and the socializing are the main attractions.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Havana, Cuba

The city of Havana is divided into 15 districts. We started with the central district with a drive by the balcony from where Castro delivered his famous speeches and the building that houses the enshrined yacht on which Castro returned to Cuba. We were headed to Revolution Square where most of the large political rallies took place.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Balcony in Havana, Cuba from which Fidel Castro delivered many of his famous speeches.

I wasn’t sure about the match between Jorge and I. He stopped talking every time I took a picture, although I told him I was listening. He said he didn’t want me to be distracted. This has disaster written all over it. I take a lot of pictures and Jorge does a lot of talking. I feared our tour might take twice as long as the other vehicles.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Cuban Capitol Building, Havana

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Bust of Abraham Lincoln in a Cuban Plaza in Havana.

We passed some beautiful colonial buildings with Spanish style interiors that have been restored like the Hotel Inglaterra (Hotel England), the oldest hotel in Cuba, and lovely plazas. We also passed the Capitelio that looks remarkably like the US Capitol Building. It is no surprise that it was built one foot taller than the US Capitol. Jorge was quick to point out a bust of Abraham Lincoln, beloved because he freed the slaves in the United States. The bust sits on a pedestal in one of the plazas.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Havana, Cuba

Jorge singled out all the hospitals we passed and the Cathedral. Almost 80% of the population is Roman Catholic; although I didn’t get the sense that the Cubans practice their faith, at least those that grew up under communism. Jorge told me that the churches were never closed as a result of the revolution or the coming of communism. For most of his life, Castro was an atheist and did not enjoy a good relationship with the Cuban priests. However, he would have faced a bigger threat from Rome if he sought to abolish the Catholic Church. Jorge claimed Castro sought to unite the goals of his revolution and the church by claiming they both sought to help the poor people. The first Cathedral was built in Havana in 1777 and the new catholic diocese created in 1787 also covered Florida and Louisiana.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Havana University, Cuba

Established in1728, the University in Havana is one of the oldest in the New World.  Education, even higher education, is free in Cuba if you test into the program. There is one exception. If you want to study foreign languages, you have to pay 20 pesos a month. It did not surprise me that this course of study incurred a cost in a communist country.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Monument dedicated to Jose Marti at Plaza de la Revolution, Havana, Cuba

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Photo stop at Plaza de la Revolucion on the Classic Car Tour in Havana, Cuba

We passed the university just before reaching Plaza de la Revolucion; we spent about 15 minutes at the plaza. The tall monument, the Jose Marti Memorial, is made of Carrera marble. For a fee, you can take an elevator to the top and enjoy the views. The square was the site of the major political rallies of the revolution. On the exterior of two nearby buildings, artists reimagined the paintings of two revolutionary leaders, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, in metal. These works are several stories high and were for me, the most interesting part of this stop.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba

When we resumed our ride, Jorge asked me if I was a professor of English. I told him I was not, but he started calling me doctor after that. No more Princess Natasha in the back seat, it was now Doctor Natasha.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Entrance to Havana Cemetery

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Entrance to the Chinese Cemetery, Havana, Cuba

We passed by the main cemetery in Havana, with its above-ground tombs. This was one of the places I was disappointed I didn’t get to stop at. Cemeteries are great places for photographers and there are always a lot of stories to be found just by wandering among the graves. We also passed a Chinese cemetery. Chinese men were brought in as workers and intermarried. Although it has been suggested that their population was wiped out, today DNA tests show that 1.5% of the population has Chinese blood.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen City Park, Havana, Cuba

Next, we broke off from the rest of the vehicles because Eric said the road was too rough on his car. Instead we rode through an interesting residential neighborhood before reaching a park. Although there was trash along the riverbank, the park itself was beautiful with very old trees covered in hanging vines. Along the river, there were some people and Jorge told me that they were practicing the rituals of the Santeria faith. To appease their Spanish masters, African slaves claimed to have adopted the Catholic faith. Actually they just reimaged their deities giving them names like Mary or Lazarus familiar in the Catholic teachings. The faith is still practiced in Cuba today.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Miramar neighborhood in Havana, Cuba

After leaving the park, we drove through the “exclusive” neighborhood of Miramar. These homes were once jewels and Jorge was impressed that I picked out his two favorites to photograph. Along the boulevard, many of the homes are now foreign embassies.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. American Embassy in Havana, Cuba

Before returning to the hotel, we passed the American Embassy that sits along side the Malecon. In the lot next to it is what looks like a hundred flagpoles with no flags on them densely packed on the lot. The story is that the American Embassy had a scrolling screen that showed news from across the world, no news in particular just current events. In order to block the view of the screen from those traveling along the Malecon, the flagpoles were put up overnight. That is one way to solve a problem.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The American Embassy in Havana Cuba from the back.  To the side you can see a portion of the densely packed flagpoles meant to block the view.

Staffing at the Embassy has been reduced indefinitely due to health attacks.  Only core personnel remain and it is defined as an “unaccompanied post”, meaning assigned staff can not bring family members with them to Cuba.  The investigation into the source of the attacks continues.  Limited staffing means long delays for Cuban nationals trying to get visas to visit the United States.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Havana

We returned to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba where we started our classic car tour. Time for a mojito!

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Not all those roaming around the Hotel Nacional de Cuba are paying guests. Havana, Cuba

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Cuba: A Tale of Two Currencies

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The headliner show at the Tropicana, Havana, Cuba

Boris is celebrating a milestone birthday and would rather take a trip than celebrate in any other way. He challenged me to come up with a special place that he had never been. I rose to the challenge by selecting a cruise out of Miami to Cuba, a place he had always dreamed of going.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Havana, Cuba

Cuba sits so close to the coast of Florida that the captain’s biggest challenge is to not move the ship too quickly. At this slow pace there is no fear of anything flying off the shelves. The one-hour delay out of Miami-a cargo tanker was in the channel-proved to be no big deal.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen The Malecon, Havana, Cuba

I want to preface my comments for my international readers. Visiting Cuba is a unique experience for Americans, having long been denied the opportunity to do so by our own government. My comments will be colored by this history. Of course, many enterprising patriots traveled to the island by simply booking a flight out of Canada or Mexico and asking not to have their passports stamped. I preferred to wait until I could make the trip legally.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Havana, Cuba

Americans have to travel to Cuba through an approved form of cultural exchange, which is one reason we chose the cruise route. The cruise line, in our case Azamara Club Cruises, takes care of those details. To board the ship, you have to fill out a form designating whether you will go on the ship’s excursions, a combination of ship excursions and approved tour company offerings, or self-guided touring. Choosing options 2 or 3 means a lot more paperwork to fill out.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen A headliner performer at the Tropicana, Havana, Cuba

Our full first day on board meant a slow crawl to Havana. It gave us the opportunity to enjoy the spring sun and also go to talks on the excursion offerings and the history of Cuba.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Old 60s-style shopping mall still in operation in Havana, Cuba

I had read about shopping in Cuba and about the 10% tax on the exchange of American dollars in addition to the currency exchange rate. With Euros, Canadian Dollars, and British Pounds there is no tax. What we found was that it was a steep service charge on the exchange, 13%.  How bad is that? Although we were told the exchange was close to one to one (actually .98 to 1), our $400 only got us 350 cucs (convertible pesos). You cannot secure Cuban currency prior to entering the country. Upon arrival, you visit a Cadeca to make the exchange. This is a country of two currencies. The locals use cup (pesos) while tourists trade in cuc (convertible pesos). One convertible peso is worth about 5 pesos. There is talk in the country that the dual currency system will be eliminated. With a change in the Cuba’s leadership anticipated on April 17, 2018, this may be sooner rather than later.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Castillo de la Real Fuerza on Plaza de Armas, Havana, Cuba

Your credit cards are no good in Cuba, so we’ll leave those in the safe in the cabin. Americans are now allowed to bring a limited supply of Cuban cigars and Cuban rum home with them. Boris once purchased Cuban cigars in Mexico and smuggled them in. All went well until about two feet after leaving the immigration officer, when a young Rocky-who had been coached not to say anything about the cigars to the official-announced that Dad was very lucky that he had not been caught. To this day I am convinced that the officer must have chose to ignore the comment of a child and let us go. We were still so close to the US immigration official that there is no way he wouldn’t have heard Rocky.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Classic American Cars along the Malecon, Havana, Cuba

This evening we dock in Havana. It was a scenic ride into the port and it gave us the opportunity to enjoy our balcony. I was on the look out for the classic American cars still found on the island. We sailed along the Malecon, a seawall the locals refer to as the “world’s largest bench”. It is popular spot in the evenings, especially on warm nights when you want to enjoy the cool ocean breezes.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Tropicana, Havana, Cuba

We arrived in port early, but customs officials did not clear the ship until 5:30. There were lots of people ready to head straight ashore. We dressed for our special evening out. Tonight is our show at the historic Tropicana. It will be a late evening. We meet our buses at 8:15 for an 8:30 departure. The doors open at 9 and the show starts at 10 pm. We made sure we got to the dining right at 6 pm when the doors opened. Lots of other people had the same idea. There are 7 buses going to the Tropicana tonight, by far the evening’s most popular excursion.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Havana, Cuba

The ship’s excursion guide told us that we could go ashore at 8 pm,  clear customs, exchange cash, and still have time to make it to the bus at 8:15. We decided to give ourselves an extra 15 minutes and left the ship at 7:45. I am so glad we did. The lines at immigration were long and slow. There were two ships at the pier so everyone on the Azamara Quest was trying to get off and others were trying to return to their ship. It was our first trip through Cuban immigration and customs. We purchased the Visa in Miami at the terminal when we checked in. It’s a serious process; when your picture is taken they tell you not to smile. It also took a long time. Fortunately, the money exchange was quick and we made it to the bus right at 8:15. We were on bus 3 of 7.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen The headliner show at the Tropicana, Havana, Cuba

Our guide Jaime told us it was just luck of the draw on where our seats would be in the 1000-seat open-air theater that is the historic Tropicana. The Tropicana opened in 1939. They do have an indoor theater that seats 600 and is used when it rains. Jamie told us that it rarely rains. We arrived just before the opening time at 9 and I don’t know how he did it, but we were dead center in the first row of tables next to the stage. I might have cropped out a few of the heads that got in the way, but none of the pictures were shot with the zoom lens; we were just that close.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen.  Performers at the Tropicana, Havana, Cuba

As we entered, women were given a carnation and men were given a cigar. You also paid a fee if you wanted to use a camera (5 cuc), tablet (10 cuc), or video camera (15 cuc). Our package includes a welcome glass of sparkling wine served when the show starts, a bottle of rum to be shared by 4 people, a mixer (a small bottle of coke), and a snack (peanuts and a wrapped piece of candy). You could purchase additional drinks or food. Since we still had an hour before the show started, Boris and I each ordered the specialty daiquiri. The daiquiri was invented in Cuba.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Terminals at the port in Havana, Cuba. Our pilot boat led us in to the San Francisco Terminal

We spent the time getting to know the other people at our table. There was an older, single widow from San Francisco of Indian decent and we talked a little about the Bollywood show tradition. She had also been to the Moulin Rouge in Paris. The other two couples were from Tennessee and Arizona. The single remaining seat was filled near show time with a man from Argentina who spoke no English. Of course, he could understand the show; it was sung entirely in Spanish.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Havana, Cuba

While we waited, we drank the very disappointing daiquiris (definitely not sweet and I couldn’t even taste the rum or vitamin R as Jamie called it) and got rained on. It was just a little drizzle and I was more worried about my camera than anything else. The guides kept running around telling us not to worry, that it wouldn’t really rain. It was fine by show time.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Headliner performers at the Tropicana, Havana, Cuba

The show ran continuously for 1 hour and 40 minutes. There were 112 dancers and over 10 singers. It is a tough life for the performers. They arrive at 3 pm each day. The first show is over just before midnight and then after an intermission there is a late show. They perform 7 days a week. The advantage is the pay, 400-600 pesos a month. That may not sound like much, but a Cuban doctor only makes 200 pesos a month. Their career is over by age 30-at least in the case of the dancers-but most don’t make it that long. 90% of the dancers are age 18-20.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Headliner at the Tropicana, Cuba

There is a main stage, a high platform, mid platforms on each side and staircases. There are a few remote stages and a separate wall with three levels for additional performers. They also come out into the audience.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Headliner performers at the Tropicana, Cuba

Talk about over the top! Talk about sensory overload! There are incredible costumes and seriously tall headpieces. Nothing is modest and these people are in terrific shape. I have never seen so many feathers (or G-strings). Jamie called it Vegas on steroids.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen The headliner performance at the Tropicana, Havana, Cuba

The dancing was beyond anything I have seen. Although I don’t speak Spanish, the singers conveyed the emotion of the music so well, it didn’t matter. At one point, Opera Singers came out in white tuxedos and gowns and entertained us. This was the only part of the show not sung in Spanish; it was sung in Italian. It was such a dramatic contrast to the rest of the show, but somehow it worked.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen The Tropicana, Havana, Cuba

I loved it! I loved it all!

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Old Havana, Cuba

I went because of the historic significance, but will remember it for the entertainment. The shows are done each day for tourists; the locals could never afford to go there. Jamie said that he has seen the show hundreds of times as a guide and it never gets old. There are some remote locations where locals have a chance to see this type of entertainment.   Did I say I loved it? I loved it all.

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Photo @Jean Janssen. Havana, Cuba

Coming back to the ship, there were once again horrible lines at immigration in the hot terminal. It was a late night, but totally worth the lack of sleep. Welcome to Havana, Boris; Welcome to Cuba, Natasha.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Back on board after the Tropicana show in Havana, Cuba

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Bruges at Night and Our Final Day

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Provincial Court on the Market Square in Bruges.

This is our final night in Bruges after separate daytime touring.  Our host selected a nice restaurant just off the Market Square.  Walking down to the square after dark, we got to enjoy the city by night.  Wonderful lighting added to the romantic feel of the city.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Market Square Belfry in Bruges.

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Photo by Jean Janssen. Sidewalk cafes on the Market Square in Bruges.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen.  Bruges’ Provincial Court Building.  The Historium is to the left.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Market Square, Bruges

We enjoyed a lovely dinner.  At the table next to us was a younger couple who we struck up a conversation with near the end of our meal.  He was a European businessman and she was a Russian woman on holiday.  Boris insisted she was a prostitute.  Regardless, it was interesting getting their read on Bruges, language barriers, and international travel.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Dinner at Chez Raymond (Brasserie Raymond), Bruges

After dinner we walked over to Castle Square.  Boris had not been since the minivan tour.  We’ll return tomorrow, so he gets a final look by day.  Then we went to Rozenhoedkaai, Quay of the Rosary, to get a final night view of Bruges’ most scenic spot.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Castle Square, Bruges

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Daytime selfie at the Castle Square.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Rozenhoedkaai, Bruges  “Here, the Groenerei and Dijver canals meet, creating a romantic, charming scene. It’s believed that the Rozenhoedkaai was a mooring place for ships back in the late Middle Ages and that salt traders would come here to unload and load their merchandise. This used to be the salt port. In the Middle Ages salt was as expensive as gold: it served to preserve food and to season dishes.”

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Earlier in the day I took a selfie at the Quay of the Rosary.

After our final breakfast in Bruges, we made arrangements for a taxi pickup later in the day.  There is a festival in Bruges today so some of the routes will be closed and early arrangements were necessary.  We walked down to the Market Square to find a large stage with musical performers and a morning exercise show.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Our hotel was really close to Market Square.

 

We walked part of the route I did the day before.  Rather than at a single location, we found festival events scattered throughout the city.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Family games at Castle Square, Bruges

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Festival Ride in Castle Square, Bruges

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Festival games were set up throughout the city, Bruges.

We did a little shopping including that which Belgium is known for, Chocolate.  The recommended best shop, Chocolatier Dumon, ended up being next to Chez Raymond where we had dinner last night.  At another shop we found waffles on a stick dipped in chocolate, combining two Belgium favorites.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Boris makes his selections at Chocolatier Dumon.

We wandered around a bit.  We decided to walk down some of the side streets to find a spot for lunch.  The city was more crowded than usual.  To my surprise, Boris headed off down my favorite alleyway.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Boris finds my favorite Bruges’ alleyway.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Logo for Boris’ favorite local beer.

We ended up in a small square near last night’s dinner spot for our alfresco lunch.  From here we will have to head back to the hotel, grab our bags and taxi and go to the train station to reverse our travel to Brussels and eventually back to London on the Eurostar.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Lunch at the square at Eiermarkt, Bruges. We had a view of last night’s dinner spot Chez Raymond and our Chocolatier Dumon.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Festival street entertainers performed in the square during lunch.

I found Bruges (Brugge) one of the most charming cities I have ever visited.  The citizens will tell you that part of the reason for the romanic setting is the economic hardship the city went through.  When silt filled in Bruges’ sea access and other cities became more prosperous, the city’s prospects faded.  Other cities with successful economies tore down their older buildings and modernized.  Bruges was unable to do so, so the charming medieval Flemish architecture remains for our enjoyment.  I highly recommended spending several days in Bruges.  I have more to see there and look forward to a return visit.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Dijver Canal, with the Church of our Lady in the background. Bruges, Belgium

 

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My Walking Tour of Bruges Continued

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Photo @Jean Janssen. Just steps from our hotel is the Neposmucenus Bridge over the Dijver Canal and the gateway to the oldest part of the city of Bruges

After leaving the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, I walked across the Maria Bridge and went to Walplein Square, one of the busiest squares in Bruges.  With its outdoor cafes and the De Halve Mann Brewery, it is a mecca for tourists and locals alike.  The De Halve Maan Brewery is operated by the sixth generation of the same family and has been in operation since 1856.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Walplein Square, Bruges

After a lunch of Belgium waffles on the Square, I had to choose between a visit to the Beguinage-sanctuary to the Beguine sisterhood since 1245-or St. Salvator Cathedral and Castle Square.  I ended up backtracking and saw the apothecary that was closed earlier and went on to the church.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bruges, Belgium

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Approaching St. Salvator Cathedral Bruges, Belgium.

St. Salvator Cathedral is Bruges’ oldest parish church as was started in 850.  The church that stands today dates from the 12th century.  The famous God the Father sculpture by Artus Quellinus is from 1682 and sits in front of the choir screen.  The cathedral has beautiful stained glass.  Restoration is underway inside.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. God the Father sculpture in St. Salvator’s, Bruges.

Returning to the Market Square, I passed my favorite alleyway and took another picture. The rain at bay, the square was full of life.  I passed through and took a few pictures on the way to Castle Square.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. My eye kept returning to this same alleyway each time I passed by.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. “The most striking building on the market square of Bruges is undoubtedly the imposing belfry” built between the 13th and 15th centuries. It is a popular climb for tourists.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. In front of the Provincial Court on the Market Square in Bruges. Next door is the Historium.

The first court of Bruges built its burg (fortified town/walled city) at Castle Square.  It was built for defensive purposes to protect against the Viking invaders.  The original castle and Cathedral have been demolished; a Holiday Inn now sits on the location of the Cathedral and the outline of the castle is still evident when you walk through the park-like area with a statue and benches.  Today on the square, there is a row of impressive buildings to see.  On the far right end sits the entrance to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, next door is the City Hall of Bruges, and on the far left is The Chambers.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. On Castle Square in Bruges from left to right you will find The Chambers, the City Hall of Bruges, and the Basilica of the Holy Blood.

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Photo @Jean Janssen. Climbing to the upper chapel of the Basilica, you have a view onto Castle Square.

The lower chapel of the Basilica dates from the 12th century and is in the Romanesque style.  The upper church dates from the 15th century, but was restored in the 19th century in the Neo-Gothic style.

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Photo @Jean Janssen. The upper chapel in the Basilica of the Holy Blood, Bruges.

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Photo @Jean Janssen. The upper chapel in the Basilica of the Holy Blood, Bruges.

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Photo @Jean Janssen. The lower chapel in the Basilica of the Holy Blood, Bruges.

After leaving the Basilica, I spent some time photographing the architecture of the buildings on Castle Square and doing some interesting people watching.  Then I walked through the narrow passageway next to The Chambers, crossed the canal, and stopped at the fish market where local artists were showing their work.

 

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Crossing the canal leaving Castle Square, note the spire of the Church of Our Lady in the distance.

Then I walked over to Rozenhoedkaai, Quay of the Rosary, the most photographed spot in the city where wreaths were sold in the Middle Ages.  It is very close to our our hotel just down from the  Nepomucenus Bridge along the Dijver Canal.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Rozenhoedkanni, Bruges

I had come full circle and was very close to the hotel so I decided to nap and rest my foot until Boris got back.  Our hotel host once again arranged a nice dinner for us.  We’ll be eating just off the Market Square tonight.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Near the Nepomecenus Bridge just steps from our hotel.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Maison Le Dragon, our hotel in Bruges, Belgium  The two lone upper windows are to our room.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The view from our room at Maison Le Dragon in Bruges includes the spire of The Church of Our Lady.

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Touring Bruges on foot (or in a boot)

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. One of the world’s most charming cities, Bruges, Belgium.

Our host at Maison Le Dragon was very obliging and served breakfast a half hour early to accommodate our touring schedule.  Boris is off to see battle sites from WWI.  I was scheduled to do my very first balloon tour, but it was cancelled due to weather.  Actually, after our minibus and canal tours yesterday I noted so many places I wanted to go in Bruges that I am glad I have the day free to tour the city.  It is raining and my foot is in a boot due to surgery, but I will not be deterred.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bruges, Belgium. When you see an interesting passageway don’t you just want to walk right down it.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bruges, Belgium. The only McDonald’s in a UNESCO protected building.

I started by walking back to Market Square and then down one of the main shopping streets to see the large Saturday Market our host had told us about.  I got to the end of the street and ran into building and road construction.  Fortunately, the tourist information center was also right there so I popped in and found out the market was just on the other side of all the construction.

The market had everything you might need from meats and vegetables to wallpaper.  I didn’t stay too long.  I wandered back down different streets, passing some of the white houses we had heard about on the tour.  These homes have been around for centuries.  Originally, private donors sponsored this housing for the poor.  Each cluster has a prayer room and chapel and the only requirement to live there was daily attendance of services.  They are now operated by the government; there are still about 50 of these homes in Bruges.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Jerusalem Church, the only private church in Belgium. Note the white government housing on the street.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. More government housing in Bruges.

My next stop was St. John’s Hospital.  Sint-Janshospitaal was established in the 12th century as one of Europe’s oldest hostels.  It was designed for both the sick and as a refuge for travelers.  It continued to serve as a hospital until 1978.   St. John’s sits opposite the Church of Our Lady.  The hospital’s wards from the 13th and 14th centuries now house the works of art.  I entered through the side courtyard and noted the various buildings obviously added over time.

In the museum, you buy tickets to the Hospital Museum and the Church of Our Lady.  A small portion of the church is open to the public while a large portion of the church is under construction.  The sections of the church containing the tombs and altar are open as a museum and require a ticket for entry.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Exterior of St. John’s Hospital as seen from the bridge/canal.

The art in the hospital museum was beyond beautiful.  There were several lovely altar screens, the most impressive of which was the Mythical Marriage of St. Catherine by Hans Memling which is on display in the hospital chapel.  However, my favorite display was the one of the most beautiful pieces of painted art I have ever seen, the Shrine of St. Ursula.  The shrine features the city of Cologne, Germany as it appeared in the 15th century.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. This large altar piece, the Mythical Marriage of St. Catherine, is on display in the chapel of St. John’s Hospital, Bruges.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The beautifully painted Shrine of St. Ursula on display in St. John’s Hospital, Bruges.

Another area you can tour is the hospital apothecary; it is open shorter hours so check before your visit.  The Apothecary has remained unchanged since the 17th century.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Apothecary at St. John’s Hospital, Bruges.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Apothecary at St. John’s Hospital, Bruges.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. View of the Church of Our Lady from the courtyard of St. John’s Hospital.

My next visit was to the Church of Our Lady just across the street.  The most noteworthy piece of art in the church museum is the sculpture of Mother with Child by Michelangelo Buonarroti.  I particularly liked the church’s stained glass and the ancient tombs.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen  Michaelangelo Buonarroti’s Mother with Child in the Church of Our Lady, Bruges, Belgium

The nobles who lived in the adjacent residence had their own access to the church.  The Lords of Gruuthuse attended religious services from the private chapel.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Private church access for the Lords of Gruuthuse to the Church of Our Lady.

The choir of the Church of Our Lady features the tombs of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy and his daughter, Maria of Burgundy.  Maria’s tomb is older and in the Gothic style featuring pious angels.  Charles’ tomb is in the Renaissance style and features courtesans.  Although Charles died first, his remains were not released until half a century after his daughter’s death.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ceremonial tombs of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy and his daughter, Maria of Burgundy.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. A Natasha selfie on the Maria Bridge with St. John’s Hospital in the background.

 

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Headed to Bruges, Belgium

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Bruges, Belgium

This morning after a nice breakfast at the Waldorf in Covent Garden, London, I separated our clothing.  We are going to store some of our things at the hotel while we travel to Bruges, Belgium for a long weekend.  When Boris asked me to come along on this business trip, he suggested I find a new place to visit while we were in Europe that was just a short plane ride away.  Since we didn’t have that much time and Eurostar was running some promotions, I decided to pick a place we could go by train and avoid the time hassles of getting to and at the airport.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along a canal in Bruges, Belgium.

I have never been to Belgium and Brussels is just two hours by train from London.  Boris has been to Brussels, so we are making a transfer there and taking a local train on to Bruges.  There are WWI battlefields nearby, so Boris has planned a day out to visit those sites while I take a balloon ride over the city and nearby countryside.  We’ll tour together on the other days.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Market Square in Bruges, Belgium.

I love the amenities of the Eurostar-seperate departure lounge, on-board wifi, etc.  It is a quick two-hour trip to Brussels via the chunnel.  The Chunnel is the shortened name for the Channel Tunnel that links the United Kingdom with northern France.  Twenty-three miles of the chunnel are underwater.  Construction began in 1988 and it opened for train service in 1994.  The train travels at about 99 miles per hour.  I took my first ride on Eurostar through the chunnel 20 years ago when Rocky was very young and the only route was London to/from Paris.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Spotted in Bruges, Belgium. Natasha loves to photograph windows and doors.

We had a little trouble in the Brussels station because there was very little signage in English.  The train tables I looked up online didn’t match up with what we were seeing.  There are frequent trains to Bruges, but we wanted to make sure that we took a direct one.  The station workers were not very friendly, but they were helpful.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Castle Square in Bruges, Belgium.

We took the train to Bruges.  Unfortunately, the cab stop is not marked and the waiting area is out in the open.  Be prepared to brave the weather.  It had been raining so all the cabs were busy in town.  We waited about 45 minutes, but finally made it to our hotel after dark.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Our hotel, Maison Le Dragon, is named for the weathervane on top.

We are staying at Maison Le Dragon, named for the dragon weathervane on top of the building.  It is just outside the heart of the city, a few minutes walk to the main square.  There are only a few rooms rented out in this elegant former residence and the owner is very attentive.  After settling in our room, we followed his excellent restaurant recommendation and walked down to Bistro Christophe.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The salon in our hotel in Bruges, Maison Le Dragon.

There was only an hour window for breakfast the next morning but it was a “wow” experience and worth arranging your schedule around.  Multiple courses, fresh breads and cheeses, egg dishes, and lots of beverage options were among the highlights.  After breakfast, we walked the few minutes to the main square.  The architecture is Flemish and enchanting.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bruges, Belgium

There were lots of people milling around the square.  Students and locals offer free group tours of the city for tips.  Given my boot, Boris suggested we take the minibus tour.  It will get us to places like the windmills that would be a little far for me to walk.  It was a full bus, but a small group.  Headphones allow you to take the tour in the language of your choice.  Both the side windows and the roof are glass so you get some great views.  If you are limited on time, have mobility issues, or don’t mind spending a little money to get some history and a great overview, I can recommend this tour.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Boris on our minibus tour of Bruges, Belgium

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Photo ©Jean Janssen.  Glass on the side windows and roof meant we had great views on our minibus tour.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bruges, Belgium

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. There is every kind of museum you can think of in Bruges, including the fries museum.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Windmills line the outer ring of the city in Bruges, Belgium.

Bruges has multiple cultural options, including many museums.  I love to eat them, but do I know the history of Belgium fries?  I can learn all about them at the Friet Museum.  Returning to the square, we decided to take a tour of the Historium which is housed right on the Market Square.  It is a Disney-like (or want to be) show with animatronics and video set in multiple rooms that you walk through on timed intervals.  It is intended to give you a bit of the history of Bruges through the telling of a 1435 love story based on a Jan van Eyck painting.  The set-up anticipates large crowds.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. View of the Market Square from the Historium terrace in Bruges, Belgium.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Colorful buildings and sidewalk cafes on the Market Square in Bruges, Belgium.

Both Boris and I thought it was expensive and a waste of time and money.  You learn very little history. Of course we are jaded Americans, raised on Disney-style entertainment.  The Historium wants to be something innovative and special, but I think it misses the mark.  Best part of the experience was the view from the building balcony.  Afterwards we tried the virtual reality booth on the ground floor.  That was a little better.  My advice is to skip the Historium.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Another perspective on the Market Square in Bruges as seen from our lunch seats at the sidewalk cafe.

Back on the Market Square, we decided to stop for lunch at one of the sidewalk cafes.  I enjoyed wonderful seafood in Bruges, especially the mussels that are one of their specialties.  Stick with the chocolate, waffles, fries, and seafood in Bruges and you can’t go wrong.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bruges, Belgium

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bruges, Belgium.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bruges, Belgium

After lunch we decided to see Bruges from a different perspective.  We took the short 30-minute canal tour which leaves from five different locations around the heart of the city.  They squeeze as many people as possible into the small boats so you’ll get to know the other guests.  It was a bit awkward in the boot, but I made it work.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Bridges and Swans on our canal tour in Bruges, Belgium.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Bruges, Belgium

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Photo @Jean Janssen. Bruges, Belgium

Bruges’ canals, also referred to as Reie, sit at the site of original city walls.  They were named for the River Roya which flowed here around the original fortifications.  We took the tour that left from the Nepomucenus Bridge along the Dijver Canal.  The exit is just across the bridge and a few yards from our hotel.  After the canal tour, we headed back to Maison Le Dragon for a late afternoon nap before dinner.

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Natasha and Boris at Den Dijver along the canal in Bruges, Belgium.

 

We had dinner along the Canal at Den Dijver, a restaurant named for the canal it overlooks.  We enjoyed a wonderful collection of fresh steamed seafood, appetizers, and dessert.  Bruges’ most scenic spot is along this canal just past the street our hotel sits on.  After dinner I walked back and took a few photographs before we ended our first full day in Bruges.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Rozenhoedkaai in Bruges, Belgium. In the Middle Ages, wreaths were sold on this spot.

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Natasha does Downton Abbey-Bampton Village, Highclere Castle, and Dinner at Rules

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Highclere Castle, England

Today is my full-day excursion out of London.  I’ll need to be back for dinner with Steve at Rules in Covent Garden near our hotel.  Originally I was going to visit Buckingham Palace which is just about to close for the season with the Queen’s return from Balmoral. However, when the Highclere Castle visit opened up I jumped at the chance since it has been impossible to get in on my last several visits to London.  I will have to save the palace for another visit.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. View of Highclere Castle from the gardens in fall.

We are departing from the Victoria Coach Station, not to be confused with the underground or train station.  Since I am in the boot, they recommended I take a cab over and I was glad I did because the station was not in the same place as where my Harry Potter bus tour left from last summer.  They are all in the same general area, but it is easy to go to the wrong place, lots of people did.  Some arrived late and really flustered; not the way to start your day.  One guest had to make her own way to the first stop on the tour and join us there.

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Natasha at Highclere Castle

We have a small group today.  I learned that they are about to start filming a Downton Abbey movie and Highclere Castle was set to be closed to tourists.  However, filming was delayed one week so they decided to open up for a few extra days.  I just got lucky in spotting the offering.  Our guide said there are usually 60+ people on a double decker bus headed out there (and that is just one tour group).  Today we are on a regular bus with just over 20 people.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Oxford, England.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Oxford, England

Our first stop is the only one that is not Downton Abbey-related.  We are stopping in Oxford.  I have never been and am exciting about seeing the architecture.  I also watch a BBC show set there, Endeavor, so it will be a fun way to start the day.  We had a comfort stop in the city museum and then our guide gave us a very brief walking tour of the city.  I enjoyed seeing all the colleges and the historic buildings.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Oxford, England

This is also the place we grab lunch.  The husband of one of the guests had taken her wallet out of her bag to get some cash before she left and had forgot to replace it.  She only let me buy her a drink.  Fortunately, her husband is picking her up at the bus station or I am not sure how she would have gotten back to her hotel.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bampton Village residence which serves as the Crowley House in the Downton Abbey series.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen St. Mary’s Church in Bampton Village which serves as the Downton Village church in the Downton Abbey series.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bampton Village Square.

Next we are off to Bampton Village which served as Downton Village for the television show.  The iconic church, church yard, Crowley House, and hospital are all right there next to the square.  The “hospital” is actually the community library and vestry and has a small gift shop in it.  We also toured inside the church where the wedding (and Edith’s almost wedding) were filmed.  It all looked pretty normal the day we were there.   Only thing we spotted were a few divots where film equipment or sets had previously been placed.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Bampton Village Library and Vestry which serves as the hospital facade in the Downton Abbey series.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen  Church yard in Bampton village

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Church interior, Bampton Village

Leaving Bampton Village, we are headed to Highclere Castle in Newbury, Hampshire, England, the stately home of the Crowley family in the television series Downton Abbey.  The series author is Julian Fellows a friend of the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, the owner of Highclere.  When the owner was in financial trouble and in danger of losing the property, Fellows suggested setting the series there and giving up filming rights to provide a funding stream to save the castle.  It has been successful.  With a steady stream of visitors, money is being putting back in to preserve and restore the castle.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. This landing strip is so close to the road that there is a traffic light to halt traffic during a landing or take off.

In route, we saw something I had never seen.  There was a stop light in the roadway to hold traffic when planes from the near military airfield were landing or taking off.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Highclere Castle

We visited the castle in the late afternoon.  It will be closing for the season today.  We first toured the interior (no photos allowed), then had tea in the downstairs tea room, and finally toured the grounds.  There is a very nice gift shop on property.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The older main entrance to Highclere Castle

The castle has an older main entrance from an earlier era that is still standing and can be seen from the back side when you tour near the gift shop.  Inside, there are two main staircases.  Most of the rooms are used during filming.  However, scenes shot in Lady Mary’s bedroom or below stairs are filmed in a studio due to the ceiling height in the castle which can not accommodate all the necessary equipment.  There are some additional rooms in the castle which are never seen on the show.

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©Jean Janssen Highclere Castle

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Photo ©Jean Janssen.  Jawdaws Castle sits on the grounds of Highclere Castle. The view from this folly, built in 1743 by Robert Herbert, is of the main house.  Robert was the uncle of Henry Herbert who became the first Earl of Carnarvon in 1793.

The interior furnishings are a little shabby, showing the effects of the financial problems the property had previously been experiencing.   The castle furniture is the same that is used during filming.  The thing that stuck me is how the rooms are exactly the same as how they appear on screen, but the actual spaces are a lot smaller.  The magic of film is that it makes everything seem so much bigger.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. In the gardens at Highclere Castle.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. On the grounds at Highclere Castle.

The grounds were lovely and some of the flowers were still in bloom.  For a while I just sat on a bench and enjoyed a view of the castle.  When we were getting close to time to depart I took a comfort stop and realized I was actually the last guest to leave the grounds for the season.

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Natasha, the last guest to exit Highclere Castle for the season.

Traffic into London was horrible and I was late to meet Boris at Rules in Covent Garden for dinner.  I had to get off the bus, then take the Tube, and then navigate around Covent Garden in the dark to find the restaurant.  I changed for dinner in the restaurant bathroom. Rules was established in 1798 and is the oldest restaurant in London.  The food is traditionally British and is as outstanding as the setting.  The menu changes seasonally and includes a lot of game.  A nice British family sat next to us, enjoying the mum’s birthday dinner.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Heading back into London we had a view of Windsor Castle.

I had urged Boris to push the reservation back, but he didn’t.  Once he got over the late start to our evening, we both had a wonderful time.  The choice of Rules was in keeping with the theme for the day; scenes from Downton Abbey were shot at the restaurant.  Since the restaurant is close to our hotel, we were able to walk back after dinner.

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Rules interior. We sat at the two-top next to the booth.

Tomorrow will be an early start to our weekend.  We are taking the Eurostar to Belgium.

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