It’s been quiet here since my last post on Belgium. Actually, I’ve been busy uploading the photos from our 2015 vacation to Greece. Our trip to Greece was, once again, something very unique which we’ll remember for a long time to come. So stay tuned and follow me on flickr for new photos until the next post comes along.
Belgium is a strange country by a lot of measures. First of all, it’s split into two distinct parts separated by language, the Wallonie (French) and Flanders (Dutch). There is no love lost between these two parts which differ in terms of economic output and wealth. Where we live, in Aachen, the Belgian border meets the German border meets the Dutch (Zuid-Limburg) border to form the tri-state Euregio region, and provides boundless opportunities for cross-country
tourism commerce. On the Belgian side of the border, the region is part of the Wallonie, yet for the first few kilometers and cities it’s part of the German community of Belgium, yet another cultural group within the country. Worse yet: Near the border, where we frequently go hiking from village to village, there a numerous enclaves of French and Dutch speakers. These villages do not follow any discernible pattern, so each time you traversed a stretch of fields to reach the next village you have to watch out for the local language. Oh boy!
Another part that is immediately obvious when crossing into Belgium is the fact that some of the communities are not as wealthy as their German and Dutch counterparts near the border, creating a stark contrast in some places. For the German tourist this is evident by the way that roads are maintained, first and foremost. Also Belgium still has above-ground power lines, something we’re not used to in Germany anymore. But apart from these small details, Belgium is a very nice and different country, kind of a mixture between France and the Netherlands in my mind. Some of the cities in the Wallonie have a history of heavy industrial activity, and the ugly remnants of this can still be seen in a lot of places. But then again, the same could be said about the outskirts of Maastricht (NL) as well as the whole Ruhrgebiet in Germany. Depending on how you like to put it, Belgium got a lot of character, it certainly isn’t as clean and dull as some German cities ;)
So, earlier this year we had decided to put our money where out mouth is and actually spend a long weekend vacationing in Belgium. After some searching on the Internet we found the website Ardennes Etape which has some really nice and affordable vacation homes in the Belgian countryside. We found a nice house which would fit the six of us in Sprimont, south of Liège. The village itself was tiny and very laid back. There were cats roaming the few streets and a number of farms which had lots of different animals practically in the center of the village. Our house was really lovely, rustic, small, with a chimney and a full-size kitchen and very different bedrooms. Even better, we were in this tiny village in the middle of nowhere, the only sounds the occasional grunts by grazing cows, and we only had to drive about an hour from Aachen.
On our first full day in Sprimont we went hiking near Spa. Spa is within the Ardennes region, so the hike was similar to the hikes we usually do through the Haute Fagnes near Eupen and Monschau. We even came upon a small airport which had planes full of skydivers starting every few minutes. After we had hiked for most of the day we drove into Spa to get a look at the lovely old city centre. The next day we drove into Liège (Lüttich), the capitol and biggest city of the Wallonie. The outskirts of Liège are a little bit run-down in some areas, and there are signs of the industrial history to be found everywhere. Katrin and I had been to Liège just once a few years ago, so we had our own picture of the city. Luckily, this time the weather was perfect, the Sunday market was brimming with shoppers and the city was in full bloom. We walked through most of the city centre north of the Meuse and of course also hiked up the Montagne de Bueren (Steps of Bueren) towards the citadel looking over the city. At the end of the day were pleasantly surprised and realized that a lot of our negative impressions about Liège were either unfounded or had been remediated in the last years, which was also true for the rest of Belgium. While Belgium is certainly not the first thing that comes to mind when talking about vacation, it is a good option if you only have a long weekend and don’t want to spend hours in your car or in a plane.
Our vacation was almost over, but we still had to get back to NYC for our flight back. Driving straight from Acadia to NYC would have taken too long so we booked a hotel near the town of Kennebunkport, Maine. Kennebunkport is known for the summer home of the Bush family, which is why it was on our radar.
We arrived late so we only took a stroll through the small city centre. For dinner we picked a nice restaurant located near the harbor. The next morning we left for NYC, which I already wrote about in my first post.
This is a list of the blog posts on our 2014 vacation on the US East Coast, in chronological order. Once again it was simply amazing, we can’t wait to back sometime soon.
The next stop on our journey was to be one of the highlights of our vacation: The Acadia National Park. We first visited it during our 2008 vacation and immediately knew that this tiny park was a must-see in the region. From North Conway we drove straight through New Hampshire and Maine and headed into Acadia late the same day.
In 2008, we arrived there heading north. On our way we had stopped in Freeport, ME, where a girl at the local tourist information had recommended a family-run motel that was a lot cheaper than the otherwise expensive hotels in Bar Harbor. Now, in 2015, this motel was still up and running and still nowhere to be found on any of the popular booking websites.
Since we had arrived late in the day, there wasn’t much to do except heading “downtown” to get a proper meal. Maine is well known for a particular local seafood delicacy: Lobster. So on our first night we went straight for the biggest lobster restaurant. Neither of us had eaten a whole lobster before, so we only ordered a single one along with another meal. This was to reduce the damage in case we didn’t like this crustacean which seems to have a Crack-like effect on most people. With the right tools and illustrated instructions on our place mats we managed to crack the lobster in no time. For the record: It was alright, but we could not understand the hype that surrounds it.
Fast forward to the next day, which we had set aside for hiking. Acadia, as I mentioned, is a rather small National Park. You can buy the entrance ticket and then take the one-way loop road through the park and arrive back at Bar Harbor after about half an hour. A lot of people seemed to do it that way. But every few hundred meters you can also park your car, get out, take a few photos and venture into the woods on one of the many very varied hiking trails.
We started out at the Visitor Center and then walked some paved carriage roads which was kind of boring since we had come to Acadia to do some proper hiking. But on our first day the weather was mostly damp, so this was not an option. That night we had dinner at an Irish restaurant where the food was just sublime.
Our second day in Acadia started out with blue skies. Last time we were in Acadia we didn’t even see the Western finger, so we took our time to drive through a number of villages on the way to our hike. We had picked a trail in advance and had no trouble finding the parking lot at the trail head. To cover some distance we wanted to hike a combination of the Valley Peak Loop and the St. Sauveur and Acadia Mountain Loop which we started at Fernald Cove near Southwest Harbor. The trail was beautiful and incredibly exhausting and it was our first real challenge in terms of hiking. It started out with a long incline through the forest but soon we arrived at an intersection. There was wooden arrow pointing left which would have taken us back to the parking lot via a very short trail. The trail going right did not have an arrow, but it pointed towards the bay so we took it. During the next hours we navigated some portions of the trail which were wedged between the water and sheer rock, had to climb over car-size boulders and go up and down steep inclines made from solid stone steps. At some point we realised that we were too far in, so we kept on pushing until we reached the summit and a nice panorama view.
Day number three saw us start out with a short drive to the parking lot at Sand Beach. A ranger had recommended a hike which sounded quite challenging, so we were keen to try it with the weather still holding up. A quick dash across the park road and a few hundred meters into the woods we had left the swaths of tourist behind us and were on our way. It wasn’t long before we came upon a large sign warning of the dangers of the trail still ahead. We had never seen a warning like that on any trail in North America, where hikers are expected to know what they’re up to on these kinds of trails. Sure enough, the trail, going up “The Big Beehive”, quickly changed pace after that. I stowed away my camera as Katrin and I had to climb over the occasional boulder. Eventually the vegetation thinned out (because of the sheer rock) and each time we looked over our shoulder we could see the parking lot and Sand Beach appear a little smaller. The last few hundred meters took disproportionately long as we had to climb over large ledges, often only made possible by iron rungs and ladders driven into the rock. There was little room for error as the path was narrow and flanked by fatal drop in most places. Incidentally this was our first trail which was only meant to be hiked uphill.
When we finally reached the summit we were exhausted from the constant tension but happy and proud to have made it. The way down lead us over the gentler northern face of the mountain and down to a small mountain lake called “The Bowl”. This was the perfect opportunity to relax for a short while before heading downhill and back to the parking lot. Before we left we took the mandatory stroll down Sand Beach. At the parking lot we saw an official notice which showed hikers on the North Face of the Big Beehive. Apparently visitors would frequently worry about the hikers on the mountain, climbing the same trail we had done earlier. Thinking the hikers were in trouble or lost, these visitors would alert the rangers. Looking at the intimidating face of the mountain it’s understandable why someone might indeed think it unwise for people to be hiking there. You can see the face of the mountain on the second photo below. If you enlarge it, you might even make out some hikers.
This was our last day in Acadia and by any measure the most exciting one. We were happy that we made it to Acadia again, this time seeing even more of Mount Desert Island. Bar Harbor might be touristy but this doesn’t diminish the appeal of this National Park which always surprises with it’s density of different terrain and vegetation. It’s perfect to do some relaxing as well as some proper hiking without being too far away from civilisation.
P.S. While writing this blog-post I had the Wikipedia page on Acadia open to look up a few facts. Only the next morning I noticed that I still had the tab open and that the title photo was my very own photo from last year. Wikipedia had indeed beaten me to it ;)