Dan and I had the most (somewhat engineered) good fortune to have overlapping meetings in Europe. Dan was attending the International Human Microbiome Conference in Luxembourg leading up to Easter weekend, and I had a meeting with the University of Oslo following Easter weekend. Which meant that, following Dan’s conference and prior to my meeting, we had a few days open to explore.
In starting my journey, the most surprising fact was perhaps how easy it was to enter Luxembourg. I mean, there was less passport control and security screens than my transit from one terminal to the next in Frankfurt. From the time I got off the little propeller plane on the tarmac, boarded the bus to drive us to the terminal, and picked up my luggage, I can’t say more than perhaps 15 minutes elapsed. And after picking up my luggage, I just walked right out of the airport and hopped on a bus to downtown Luxembourg. No arrival forms, no passport check (which also, sadly, means no passport stamp), and I was on my way.
Luxembourg is your standard small, beautiful European city.
What caught my attention first and foremost, though, was not the beauty of the city and the combination of old city and new, but how many people were smoking. My thought was, “Wow. I could totally make a job for myself here as a public health advocate.” Dan had already had a few days to explore the area, arriving in Luxembourg with enough time to settle in before the start of the conference. That was handy for me because he could direct me toward the cool places to visit, primarily (for me) the award-winning Chocolate House for hot chocolate and the Luxembourg Palace.
A founding member of the EU and a large banking center, Luxembourg is an interesting city. Small. Easy to get around. But not a place you need more than perhaps a day to explore. I wasn’t overly intrigued by the museum offerings, so most of what I wanted to see involved walking about the city. Things like the viaduct that separates the old city from the new, the Grund (with surprisingly few people out being one of “the” places to go in the city), and the City Center. Our first night together in Luxembourg we walked to the Grund for dinner and were surprisingly hard-pressed to find a restaurant that was open…at 7 pm. The city center is even harder to find a restaurant still serving dinner at that hour. Drinks, sure, but food. Not so much.
So a day in Luxembourg was more than sufficient, which worked well as I balanced work with travel. We then rented a car for our first driving excursion in Europe and headed into Trier, only 46 km from Luxembourg City, a town founded in the first century by the Romans. Starting from the Roman Baths, which were never actually used as baths but for a variety of other purposes, we followed the tourist path to the basilica and roman ruins, stopping for a pretzel along the way. After a few hours touring Trier, we jumped in the car to head toward Cologne.
On the road to Cologne, we noticed brown signs with what we assume to be tourist sites. We drove by without paying much attention until noticing the “Burg Cochem” sign with a castle painted on it and decided to make a go for it. We stopped to search our GPS for directions but were coming up with nothing. We opted to pick follow directions to the Cochem train station and see what happened, with hopes to find a castle on our own.
Our drive into Cochem took us through quaint German towns, making at least the attempt to find a castle worth it. As we entered the bustling little tourist town, we noted an information center and decided to turn around and head back there to ask, “Is there a casstle nearby?” And then, upon turning around, we spotted this:
So, yes, there was a castle in Cochem: the Reichsburg Castle. As Dan put it, this was more of a “Translvania castle” than a “Knights of the Round table castle.” Quite imposing, it was easy to imagine what it was like when it towered over a small peasantry in the Moselle valley.
We hiked up a steep hill to walk the ramparts of the castle, declining an all German tour of the castle and vowing to find another castle in on a future trip that we could tour and enjoy in English. Instead we trekked back down the hill and made a stop at a little mom and pop shop for a beer and the best apfelstrudel I’ve ever had. It was a warm strudel served with vanilla ice cream and will could, alone, have made my trip.
So the decision to opt out of the castle tour in favor of exploring the town worked out quite well for us.
We continued on to Cologne, staying at a hotel about 10 minutes from the main attraction in Cologne: the Cologne Cathedral. Begun in 1248, the gothic cathedral wasn’t completed until the late 1800s. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to have planned or built something so large, starting so long ago. And to think about what it’s like to start a project that won’t be finished until generations and generations and generations later. Although you see that all over Europe, it doesn’t get less impressive.
We snaggged a nougatpretzel, hase-shapped pretzel, and cheese pretzel to sustain us on our walk through the Old Town, across the Hohensollern bridge, and into Deutz. [Note: It’s a 1.1 km walk across the bridge, but we couldn’t pass up a good German pretzel. Especially when we’ve been surprised at how inexpensive these delicious treats are. We’re talking approximately €6 total for our treats, or around $7 USD.]
Walking along the Rhine river to get a view of the cathedral from the other side of the river, we headed south toward the Severinsbrucke and across to the Lindt Chocolate Museum.
A huge shout out to a friend from Stanford who advised us to visit. The museum covers a wide range from the history and cultural aspects of chocolate, to production (where you can watch from the crushing of the seed through to the wrapping of the chocolate — think of “I Love Lucy” and the chocolate factory episode), to advertising. The second floor even features an enormous chocolate fountain where a children (and equally excited adults) line up for a sample…or two. You can even create your own personalized chocolate bar, selecting the type of chocolate and add-ins. Dan and I made a dark chocolate bar with black currants, pistachios, caramel drops, and vanilla bean. The museum focuses on chocolate, not specifically on Lindt. But he does get credit for accidentally figuring out the conching process (by forgetting to turn a machine off over the weekend) that gives chocolate it’s creaminess. What a happy accident!
From the museum we headed back to the Old Town and the Bierhaus en d’r Salzgass, found on a little side street that screams picturesque Europe, for a traditional German dinner.
We then wandered through plazas, past the Town Hall, and back to our hotel in preparation to head to Brussels via Maastricht, in the Netherlands, the following day.
Maastricht is just over an hour from Cologne, situated along the river with colorful and picturesque buildings lining the Meuse river.
Although we had known we were planning to make a stop in Maastricht, we hadn’t actually planned anything specific we would like to do there. To be honest, we had assumed that since it was Easter Sunday, nearly everything would be closed so we would simply be wandering and enjoying the architecture and any sites we could find and walk around. We were surprised to see so many restaurants open, and even a Sunday morning Markt in the plaza outside the Town Hall.
We wandered from the plaza to the Basilica of Saint Servatius, with it’s wild red tower in the center of the large church.
Maastricht is a sweetly bike-friendly town, with bike parking all over, bikes for rent, and the cutest little old ladies in their fancy Easter Sunday dress biking home after service. We found remnants of the medieval city wall on our way to parks with ducks that highly amused us.
After a pleasant soup lunch, we jumped back in the car to head just under an hour and a half into Brussels. Our hotel was right in the city center (near the Gare Centrale), which made it easy to get out into the city to explore, starting with waffles: both Belgian and Liege waffles.
Belgian waffles are the type of thick waffles with pancake-like batter, while Liege waffles have a more bread dough consistency that must be pulled into shape on the waffle iron. We happily consumed three waffles (one with strawberries and cream, one with nutella, and one with speculoos) during our course of exploring on the first day. Just behind our hotel we found the Grand Palace.
Then, a bit unhappy that this is such a “need to see” tourist attraction, but unable to pass up the chance to visit while we were so close, we headed to the Manneken-Pis statue — the first model of this famous little boy who is now seen in many garden statues.
On the other side of our hotel we walked through the Parliament houses, past the Royal Palace, and the Parc de Bruxelles and to the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula before walking back past the Grand Palace and down a side street where we found this gem of an eatery & drinkery:
On our next day in Brussels we started with a trip to the Atomium, a structure originally built for the World’s Fair that can now be toured for a beautiful view of the city. When we got there about an hour after it opened, the line was hours long and the day was cloudy, so we opted for pictures from the oustide.
We then headed toward the Neuhaus Chocolate Outlet, which we understood had free samples and the opportunity to buy this fancy chocolate by the kilo. It’s a place where you can put together your own special tins at a much better rate than the tourist shops in the city center. Having heard about Europe’s “Easter Monday” holidays, I was sure to look up the hours before we left for the outlet — about a 20 minute drive from our hotel. However, we were sadly disappointed to arrive and find the outlet closed. Foiled.
So instead we headed to the Belgian Comic Strip Center to browse around. The museum features largely Belgian and European comic strips, so we were plenty entertained by the store and beautiful building housing the museum and didn’t feel the need to tour the museum.
With a little afternoon rest, we headed out to drinks and then dinner. Dan had found a list of the best bars in Brussels, and checked the hours of operation, only to be foiled again by a website that wasn’t updated for the holiday. We found WiFi and the another restaurant on the list — a little place down a side alley. The beer and wine was tasty and the atmosphere was perfect.
The next morning Dan ran out to get us Liege waffles for breakfast (my definite favorite!) with speculoos and strawberries before taking me to the Brussels airport to head to Norway for my own work meeting. He even naively entrusted me with all of our chocolate souvenirs when I headed off to Norway. The Brussels airport was a bit chaotic. As a large hub for Europe, with signs that were outdated, it took several wanderings up and down the entry (and asking for the airline only to be told it wasn’t at that airport) before finding my check-in spot. Yes, the airline was at the Brussels airport. After about 45 minutes in line to drop off my bag, the security process was remarkably quick.
As was the arrival process in Oslo. I arrived in mid-afternoon and headed out to explore, aiming toward the Viking Ship Museum, and getting to see the Nobel Peace Center on my way.
(Again, I checked the museum times and knew I’d have about 2 hours at the museum after arrival.) After finding the ferry to the museum and hiking up the hill, I was disappointed to find (yet again!) that the museum hours posted online were incorrect. Gr! I made my way on to the Kon-Tiki museum with a half hour to spare, but just popping in was enough. At least I got a couple ferry rides out of it…?
I then wandered around downtown to see the Old Town and the Opera House before calling it a day.
The next morning I got up early to walk to the Royal Palace before heading to the University of Oslo for an exciting global health meeting.
After an extremely productive meeting at the University of Oslo, a tour of the sculpture garden, and a dinner out with colleagues, it was time to wrap up this European tour and head home.
I was most surprised to learn on this trip that we could visit several cities and feel like we got to see and do “enough” in only a few short days in each location. That will definitely shape my future European trip planning…which I hope to have the occasion to do again soon.