Beautiful Bruges

By Jane Isaac
Crime Fiction Writer

The historic city of Bruges is located on the western side of Belgium in the Flemish Region and, in my mind, can only be described as achingly beautiful. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, ancient buildings are surrounded by cobbled streets, alongside the tall slim houses which line the canals that snake through the city centre.

With a climate very similar to England, we were treated to beautiful sunshine during our stay last weekend which undoubtedly added to our enjoyment, however I think there is little not to enjoy about Bruges. It’s not only pretty, but also one of the friendliest cities I have visited. The small Hotel Alegria where we stayed was perfectly located in the centre and the owner, Veronique, couldn’t do enough to cater for our every need, without being intrusive.

There’s a number of different options to travel to Bruges from the UK; I guess it rather depends on where you are travelling from. This time we opted for the Eurotunnel which we picked up at Folkstone and found to be not only inexpensive, but also enormously efficient. It seems that if you arrive early, you can board an earlier train within a two hour slot of your booking for no extra charge, and the boarding and disembarking are effortless, as are the drive through France and into Belgium. From our home in Northamptonshire, the whole journey took us a little over five hours door to door.

There are a plethora of different trips to take and places to visit when you arrive in the city. Cars are rarer than in other cities, making it softer and more tranquil, as most people appear to travel around by bike. A canal trip is beautiful and relatively inexpensive, especially when it includes an overview of the city’s rich history. Climbing the 366 steps to the top of the medieval Belfry that dominates Bruges skyline can be tough on the knees and a little scary in places (especially if you have a husband with a heart condition!), but the view at the top is breathtaking and well worth the hike. A trip around the back streets by horse and carriage is another wonderful way to move around, and particularly romantic on a balmy evening. There is also the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is worth visiting for the stained glass windows alone, and if you are religious, amongst its relics, it claims to have a phial of the blood of Christ that you can view.

As one would expect, Bruges is packed with restaurants, cafes and outdoor eateries; lovely boutiques, and delicious chocolatiers. Of course we tried the chocolate (I can recommend Julie’s if anyone is looking for somewhere particularly nice), sampled the fresh waffles, and bought frites from the stall in the square. But those of you that know me well, will know that I’m a bit of a foodie (my daughter’s influence) and I really wanted to try some of their high end restaurants too. We enjoyed an amazing meal at Brasserie Raymond where we tried delicacies such as snails, marrowbone and bouillabaisse. We also ate lobster and moules (mussels) at the wonderful Breydel-De Coninc, somewhere I’m told the locals frequent. Main courses at these two restaurants average 20-30 Euros each, but are definitely worth it if you want to try something different, however the choice of eateries, and cheap ones at that, is vast and there is practically something available for every taste and pocket. My only regret was that due to being on medication I wasn’t able to sample the many beers that Belguim has to offer, although my husband made sure he didn’t let the side down on that count!

Surprisingly small (my husband joked that everything was within fifteen minutes walking distance from the city centre), Bruges is easily accessible on foot and a wander up the back streets, passing street markets, soaking up the ambience and sitting outside cafes is what it’s all about. On one particular evening, we sat near a market stall and, after chatting with the stallholder, she asked me to mind her stall while she popped to the ladies. At the same café, a bunch of musicians stopped by for a beer and pulled out their guitars. When they discovered my husband was also a keen guitarist, they leant him an instrument and they all played some tunes together. That evening summed up Bruges for me: good food and good company amongst beautiful surroundings. I should add that many of the locals speak up to five languages fluently, so communication is rarely a problem!

I’ll definitely go back to Bruges. Next time I’d like to take a boat trip to visit the nearby village of Damme and perhaps visit the Flanders Battlefields of Ypres too. There is just so much to do in and around this wonderful city.

*All images courtesy of Jane Isaac

** This article was originally published on Jane Isaac’s Blog

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Amazing and Rare: Festivities in San Miguel de Allende

By Nora Vasconcelos

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Weekends in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, are extraordinary. This colorful city, located in the State of Guanajuato, has achieved international recognition thanks to its beautiful architecture and quiet life that inspires artists from all around the world and gives a peaceful haven to foreign retirees who have made of this place their home away from home.

But when Saturdays and Sundays come, many visitors come along to join the creative and entertaining spirit that floods the city in a way that is not easy to find anywhere else.

This unique place is also a very demanded venue for weddings, so national and international couples who have fallen in love with San Miguel, book months (many months) in advance a place for their ceremony which, unlike any others, some times includes the religious ceremony at the magnificent San Miguel de Allende Parish, as well as a vibrant display of arts, crafts and traditions.

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With not many people expecting it, a local band starts playing music, and two very tall dolls, depicting the bride and the groom, appear in the main plaza, causing the surprise and admiration of everybody around.

Then, the two figures approach the Parish dancing in a way that make easy for the people watching understand the story they want to tell with their dances.

Discretely, they look at each other before entering the atrium of the church, like stealing a mischievous glance that shows the loving complicity of the couple.

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Then, they dance all their way to the main entrance , facing the public that stands at each side of the atrium with amazement and enjoyment.

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Before the enter the parish, the couple give one last glance to their audience, taking care of not facing each other.

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Minutes later, when some more dances have taken place, the happy newly weds finally get together, face to face, to start their new life as husband and wife, with all the cheers of the people who have enjoy a unique event, right before the “big event”, that is the actual wedding.

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The Lost Art of Lending Books and Sending Postcards

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By Nora Vasconcelos

Last weekend I was all happy and excited because I had just bought a new book. Then, just a few seconds later, a somber thought crossed my mind, I wouldn’t be able to lend that book to a friend who, I was sure, would love to read it.

It was then when I thought of how much we’ve lost in terms of human touch due to the our fast paced lives, which have to adjust everyday to a world in constant change, as well as to all these new and admirable technologies such as electronic books and internet.

The advantages of ebooks are usually many, such as ‘packing’ onto your e-reader, tablet or smart phone as many books as you wish to read at any given time. These same gadgets allow us to take almost an innumerable amount of digital photos of our trips and daily adventures and encounters in our hometowns.

However, I get a certain feeling of nostalgia when I remember how much I’ve enjoyed lending a book to a good friend just because I wanted to share with them all the emotions, images, experiences and, many times, relief that a particular work of fiction, memoir or a non-fiction piece brought to me.

With e-books the experience it different. We can talk for hours with our friends about a title or titles we’ve read, but somehow, the sharing experience is different, mainly because there is an essential component missing, the physical book.

The same thing happens with the digital photos. We can share them by email, or upload them on social media. But unless you carry all of them on your phone or tablet and they’re well-organized, showing them to your friend during a gathering or while having a nice cup of coffee, the experience of sharing your travel adventures gets a little (usually, a lot) missed in the whole conversation.

Sometimes we can’t really take the time to look with all the detail those photos, because watching pics on a gadget usually comes with the urgency that we’re use to while dealing with anything that’s on our phone or tablet, our fingers automatically start passing all the images very fast which give us just a hint of what travellers have seen while visiting a place.

On the other hand, taking photos with a film and developing was a bit complicated, and totally limiting to 24, 32 or 48 pics. Many rolls have remained inside a box, but many other have become wonderful photo albums, which are always very nice to see and enjoy while bringing back wonderful memories of past trips.

The same happens with postcards, it used to be such a nice mission finding postcards to email them home, thinking how happy family and friends would be when they received that little piece of paper full of images of faraway lands, making them feel that even in the distance, they were in our minds.

May be more than the physical objects, what we’ve missed is part of the emotions and the feelings that are attached to sharing special intangible mementos which make us linger in time while holding a book or a postcard, and the solution to this particular nostalgia might be easily brought back just by taking the time to really be there when we talk about a particular book or when we see some digital photos, leaving behind the excruciating hurries that come with this contemporary life.

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Food transforms this Mexican town, year after year

By Nora Vasconcelos

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Calpan is a very small town, located in the west part of Puebla, one of the most diverse and industrious states in Mexico. It’s also guarded by two of the main volcanos in the country, the Iztaccihuatl (which residents affectionately called Doña Rosita) and the Popocatepetl (also known there as Don Goyo). So that, life in Calpan goes by in a quiet pace most of the year.

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The oldest buildings have been well preserved, as they were some of the first built in Mexico by the Spaniards, around the 16th century. All around, stone dominates the sights. Churches, houses, streets, all of them witness how people go through their everyday routine with not many disturbances from the urban fast-paced rhythm. Something really amazing, considering that this place is only two hours away from Mexico city, the country’s capital.

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But once a year, everything changes here. Local residents welcome hundreds of tourists from other parts of the country who, year after year, can’t wait to enjoy the most delicious “Chiles en nogada” ever!

This Mexican dish, composed with green peppers stuffed with meat and fruits, and covered with walnut sauce, is not only one of the most typical of the national cuisine, but also one with historical roots, as it has its origins during the aftermath of the war of the independence that Mexico fought with Spain in the 19th century.

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The elaborated recipe for this dish was created in the state of Puebla, and it has been preserved through the years with just a few modifications. Eating “Chiles en Nogada” is a broad tradition that extends around many places in Mexico, and its anxiously awaited every year, as the ingredients for its preparation can be bought only during July and August and, to remain the closest to the original recipe, the ingredients most be from Calpan, Puebla.

It’s so that this charming town changes completely for two weekends, at the beginning of August. Families open their garages and get some tables to served visitors their special recipes; restaurants send their waiters and waitresses -dressed in typical Mexican customs- to greet visitors with plates containing the coveted dish as soon as they arrive to the town, and in the center of Calpan, a big marquee is displayed with tables and chairs, allowing people to taste dozens of different combinations which are prepared at the moment in stands specially designed to allow local restaurants to prepare these chillies while guests observe the preparations.

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Of course, the smell is amazing. And having the opportunity of sitting down at the table with people you’ve just met, is surprising. Life goes easy there. No rush, no worries. It’s simply time to sit back and relax. Calpan residents are there to take good care of you.

When the delicious meal is over, it’s time to go for a nice walk, and the farmers’ market is right there to surprise all people  -particularly those, like me, coming from the big cities- with their incredibly fresh produce, hand-made tortillas and all sort of Mexican snacks.

Then you see smiles all around. People in Calpan feel happy and proud to show visitors their hard work, from a complete year in which they have taken care of their fields.

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And then, when the afternoon turns into sunset, the culinary adventure ends. However, the pleasant experience has come here to stay for a long time!

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Want to read more about culinary trips? Check this post written by Jane Isaac, about The Markets Of The Dordogne, in France. And once you’re there, why not read her other posts about books!

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Seagulls in Italy

By Nora Vasconcelos

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I recently had the opportunity to spend a lovely time in Italy. While walking around the unique streets of this amazing country, I started taking photos of seagulls that had gracefully found a place on some of the most well-known Italian landmarks, and it was so that I thought I’d compose a post letting this adventurous birds take the stage.

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Weekly Photo: Alphabet

By Nora Vasconcelos

“When you read a book a tree smiles because then it knows that there’s life after death”

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