Yesterday we returned home from our Thanksgiving weekend getaway which was one of the most fun trips we have been on yet, although it was not the trip we expected. Months ago we decided to use the Thanksgiving 4-day as our anniversary trip so that we could be home for Christmas (our anniversary is December 26). Initially we said Paris, but Fil changed his mind right when I was getting serious about booking a hotel. So then I looked all over for a fun long weekend- Northern Lights in Sweden, Snowy mountains in Switzerland, castles in France and Germany that are now hotel/resorts… and just about everywhere was booked solid! Finally, we decided on Bruges, Belgium. From late November to early January Bruges has an ice sculpture festival plus the city boosts breweries, chocolate shops and handmade lace. We were both very excited but 5 days before we were to leave we had to cancel.
After the attacks in Paris, the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) issued travel restrictions for Paris, then added all of France and issued specific warnings for various locations in Italy. This means that as a member of the US Military we are not allowed to travel for business or leisure to these locations. Finally, a week before thanksgiving they issued travel restrictions for Brussels, Belgium. At this point we decided to cancel our plans since we would be driving through Brussels all the way to the North Sea coast of Belgium. We were both really bummed, but at the same time ok with the decision for safety but also to give Fil a chance to relax. Our mini vacation was to fall between two weeks of work travel for him, so taking a break at home sounded nice too.
If you know me, sitting at home for 4 days was not going to fly. I came up with a few day trip options for us, and then realized I could plan a nice overnight trip where we could still stop in Tongeren, Belgium as we had originally planned, for the antique market. New plan: spend Saturday in Valkenburg, Netherlands for the Christmas caves and markets, then a quick 20 minute drive to our hotel outside of Tongeren so that Sunday morning we could do the market and then stop in Liege on the way back home. A perfect plan.
The only flaw was what to do on Thanksgiving? With only 5 days till the holiday I really did not want to set a menu, shop, prep, and cook for the two of us knowing that we would be away the rest of the weekend and Fil would be away the following week. I did not want to eat all those leftovers. So we took the easy route and ate at the dining facility (mess hall) on base. The turkey was dry which was heartbreaking since I make the best turkey ever, but not having one pan to clean was a nice tradeoff. Also Brock enjoyed himself:
Black Friday in Germany doesn’t exist, however, the Christmas markets start to open and that is way better! I have said before, but this year I plan to go to as many markets as I can. This year kicked off with Trier- the one market we went to last year. I thought it was better this year! I bought a ton of gifts to send home and we got our first gluwein mug of the season. Our friends went with us, so it was extra fun. It was the perfect way to kick off our vacation. In the morning we would leave for the Netherlands.
A quick 2 hour drive brought us to Valkenburg, Netherlands, home of the famed Christmas Caves. Below the castle ruins are two caves, Gemeentegrot and Fluweelengrot, which are believed to date to the 12th century. Through the years they were mining caves and provided secret escapes for the knights. Unlike most markets which are free to enter, there is a fee to enter the caves, but the proceeds benefit the castle foundation which receives no government subsidies so it’s worthwhile. The caverns are supposed to be beautifully decorated and chock full of holiday vendors with all sorts of goodies. We got there 2 hours after opening and the line was 3 blocks long and not budging. I guess for safety they have to limit entrance. Fil was not up for the wait so we decided to check out Santa’s Workshop- a small indoor market on the next block. We picked up a few things and then headed back out to check out the line for the second cave—it was actually worse than the first! I was disappointed that we couldn’t wait, but there was no way Brock would wait in line. As disappointed as I was, it didn’t really matter because we were having so much fun with Brock. He wanted to climb the stairs to the castle ruins himself, and was running all over the place.
We may not have entered the caves, but we did visit Magic Sand Valkenburg- another underground cavern with sand carvings. This year’s theme was “A Christmas Carol” and the sculptures depicted scenes from the famous novel. At the end of the cave was a large room with traditional Christmas carvings as well. I am not sure if they were sand sculptures like you see at the beach, or sandstone, but either way it was pretty neat.
Brock topped his adorableness at lunch! I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. He ate a bunch of snacks while we waited, drank a whole cup of milk, and still had room to polish off a LARGE pancake and a heap of French fries, all while playing with the group sitting behind us. Like any true German, Brock uses a fork to eat his fries and thanks to his father he even dips them in mayonnaise. Except he only dipped a few times and then decided to use the fry like a spoon to eat the mayo. XD
After lunch we walked around town for a bit checking out the local shops. It was then I realized we were in Holland. I kept saying that we were in the Netherlands, but I didn’t realize we were in the region of Holland. My dream came true. I bought a pair of wooden shoes in Holland… and a slipper version for Brock. Now I can dance just like Shirley Temple :). The cherry on top was as I tried them on, Fil tried to tell me they were just for decoration. I told him how I could wear them to take out the garbage and work in the garden. He refused to believe me until a random man told him I was right and that they are wonderful work shoes. Win for me!
We decided not to stay for the Christmas parade, and instead headed to our hotel to check in. Just 20 minutes later we were checked into our hotel in Riemst, Belgium just outside of Tongeren. If you are ever in the area stay at the Malpertuus. The hotel was really wonderful and the restaurant was in all seriousness the best restaurant we have eaten at since arriving in Germany almost a year ago. We took full advantage and ordered a bottle of champagne, appetizers, a delicious meal and fish sticks for Brock. We enjoyed it so much we may stay and enjoy a meal again next time we want to go to Tongeren!
In the morning we drove less than 10 minutes and were at the market. This was our second time in Tongeren and there were fewer vendors due to the weather, but we still made out pretty good. Both of us found what we wanted. I got three more cookie boards, and Fil got an antler which he plans to use for some crafting projects. I purchased a cookie board at the Ramstein Bazaar a few weeks ago and thought they would make great decorations for my dining room so I was super happy to get 3 more.
Cookie boards are part of the traditional Dutch celebration of Saint Nickolas. You press the dough into the mold then flip it over, slamming it on a baking sheet so the cookies fall out of the board. The one I got at the bazaar I had engraved with “Quick” the name of my Dutch ancestors who fought in the American Revolutionary War.
Finally, our last stop on the way back was Liege, Belgium. One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Bruges was for the ice festival so I was over the moon to find out about one in Liege! And better yet, I actually recognized the theme of this one, Star Wars. Outside the main train station was a large temperature controlled tent set to a steady 21 degrees Fahrenheit but it felt MUCH colder. It was good thinking to put on Brock’s snow pants. The sculptures ranged in height from 2 to 6 meters and were carved from 500 tons of ice! We walked through really fast because it was so cold, but it was really awesome. Before I leave you with all the pictures of the ice fest, I wanted to let you know that Brock and I start swim class tomorrow. Wish us luck in the pool!