To Belgium and Beyond: Part Three

I awoke on my last full day without my kiddo in Vianden, Luxembourg. I took one final walk along the river and one last look at the castle on the hill, before I headed back into Belgium.

The casino at Spa

With that one last solo day I figured it was best to head to where the name had become synonymous the world over with relaxation: Spa, Belgium.

Spa is an old, old town with lots of historic firsts and a UNESCO World Heritage designation to boot. Discovered by and used for mineral bathing by the Romans, Spa reportedly truly became a stopping of point for its curative waters from the 14th century. The world’s first casino opened in Spa in 1763 and the world’s first recorded beauty pageant was held there in 1888, won by an 18-year old Creole woman from Guadeloupe. In 2021, UNESCO recognized Spa and 10 other European towns for their historic value as Great Spa Towns of Europe.

Part of the designation centered on the other industries that built up around European spa towns like hotels, casinos, and beauty contests. In Spa, a postal system was set up in 1699 that allowed those lucky enough to be able to afford to travel and “take the waters” could then send letters and postcards to friends and family boasting of such.

Spa — well known for its bottled water and for the leap frogging guy on the Spa water bottles

At the Museum of the City of Waters, I learned that collectible items made in Spa became all the rage for visiting tourists. Hand hewn and painted decorative boxes or colorful delicate painted glassware sporting the name of the spa town were what 18th and 19th century tourists loved to bring home after being enticed by colorful tourist brochures.

My joint ticket also gave me entry to the Museum of Laundry. I had honestly expected little from this place but was pleasantly surprised at the amount of information and fascinating displays. An oft-ignored by-product of tourists and hotels is a proliferation in items needing laundered, from clothes to bed sheets to towels, and the people, usually women, who washed those items. The museum gives a history of laundering and the advances in technology that made washing and drying at least easier on the laundress (from washing machines and detergent to dryers and irons) if not more interesting. I ended up spending more than an hour there.

The big thing I was in town to do though was of course to soak in the waters of the Thermes de Spa, the facility for bathing in Spa’s thermal waters built in 1868 on a hill overlooking the town. My hotel helped me to make a booking to arrive at the spa at 6 PM where I would then have three hours to enjoy until closing. Unfortunately, right after I made my reservation and went to put on my suit I realized I had not packed it. Luckily though the bathing house sells inexpensive suits to silly tourists who forget theirs. Had I still been a backpacker watching my money carefully, this might have been a real dilemma, but I came to take the waters and I would do so even if it meant forking over more money.

I stayed about an hour and a half enjoying the large heated indoor pool, the heated outdoor pool, the sauna, and the Hammam. Just enough time to give those waters time to do some wonders.

The Chateau Des Comtes D’Ursel and narrow streets of the medieval town

The following morning I had one last hour-long stroll around Spa before saying goodbye. I needed to be at the Euro Space Center by 3 PM for a camper presentation, so I thought I would break up the hour and a half drive with a stop in Durbuy, Belgium’s smallest incorporated town.

Durbuy was once a thriving medieval village on the Ourthe River at the crossroads of commerce. Today it is a very small, very walkable historic town chock full of character. It is dominated by the Chateau Des Comtes D’Ursel (unfortunately closed to the public), which stands alongside the river and bridge. Though the current castle is 18th century design, records indicate a castle stood there since at least the 11th century. The little warren of cobblestone streets adjacent to the castle are full of restaurants, bars, stores, and homes of stone and timber. I was kicking myself for not having more time here. Durbuy warranted an overnight stay so I had the time to slowly explore, especially after most of the tourists departed. Unfortunately, I just didn’t have the time. I had lunch and then headed to pick up C from space camp.

Fun in central Brussels

After five nights apart, I felt absolutely giddy to arrive at the Euro Space Center auditorium to see my daughter at the presentation of graduation certificates. She was sitting front row right next to the doors as I came in, huddled together with the other American girl with whom she shared a dorm. C did not want to leave. I had wondered how she might handle five nights away at an unfamiliar place; five nights is the longest we have ever been apart but previously she was at her dad’s or my sister’s. I need not have worried; she told me she could have done another week.

We drove back to Brussels, returning the car at the airport and then taking the train to our city center hotel. C did not understand why I gave up the car, but, as I tried to explain, we had no use for it in the capital. I had very much enjoyed the freedom the car had given me to drive from town to town, but there had also been challenges on narrow old town streets, with parking, and when the GPS failed as I drove from Vianden to Spa.

We had three additional days in Brussels before our return to Guinea. On our first day, we walked from our hotel near the Brussels North train station to the Royal Palace. Like the Grand Ducal Palace of Luxembourg, the Belgium Royal Palace is open to the public just once a year, six days a week for six weeks between mid July and September. Unlike the Grand Ducal Palace no guided tour is required and photographs are allowed. We did need to buy timed tickets but after arriving and going through security we were able to walk through at our own pace. That certainly worked better for C and I; I am pretty sure my daughter would not have enjoyed the German guided tour one bit.

After the palace visit we walked, meandering through Brussels Park, past the St. Michel and St. Gudula Cathedral, and back to the Great Square. We had lucked out to be in town and get tickets to see the Royal Palace but also it turned out that weekend was the festival for the Flower Carpet, held only the the three days on the weekend around Assumption Day, every other year. I do not know what the crowds are normally like, but I was surprised that as many people as there were on the Great Square, we could still easily walk get to the cordoned rope to have a view. We also easily bought tickets to the Brussels City Museum (which is very interesting in its own right!) with a balcony surcharge so that we could view the flower carpet from the third floor.

On our second to last day we visited the Magritte Museum, again putting in the steps on foot. I am a fan of surrealism and museum was top notch. What surprised me though was how much C enjoyed it. I had payed to get audio tours and selected the one for teens for C but she wanted more information than that was giving her and she asked to take mine. I didn’t get it back. From the museum we walked a little ways to have Thai for lunch and then rode “The View” an observation wheel near the Palace of Justice. Our route back to our hotel took us past key comic murals around the center of town.

C finds a friend at the Comics Art Museum

Belgium has embraced comics as a so it was perhaps little surprise that we found more than a few stores catering to Japanese anime fans. My daughter C is one! This added to the high marks that C gave Brussels as the trifecta of waffles, fries, and anime was too much to ignore. We spent our last morning at the Comics Art Museum where we learned about the art of comics and animation. The most famous Belgian comics characters are probably the Smurfs and Tintin, that have a worldwide audience, but there is an incredibly rich culture of Belgian comics beyond these.

That afternoon we headed back to the area around the Magritte Museum and the Royal Palace to meet friends of ours from our Shanghai days. RG and BG are a Foreign Commercial Service family and their daughter OG had been in C’s preschool class in China. Though the girls only vaguely remembered each other when we first met for drinks, several hours later they were playing together as if no time had passed. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful trip — a reminder of the amazing connections we can make in this lifestyle despite our nomadic lives.

As we headed back to Guinea the following day, it was with a renewed sense of excitement for our new post. The first six weeks had been a rather challenging whirlwind and I am not going to lie that it was more than a little hard to leave behind the order and conveniences of Europe, but when our plane touched down in Conakry that evening I felt glad to be there. We were home.

To Belgium and Beyond: Part One

First, before I get into the trip itself, I want to explain how it is I found myself on nearly two weeks of leave not yet six weeks after arriving in Conakry. It is not my usual modus operandi to arrive at a new post and then take off so soon after. Then again, this is a new year, a new arrival time, at a new point in our lives. Earlier in the year, I looked ahead at our arrival in Conakry, and thought how it would be for my daughter C. We would arrive in Conakry just two weeks after the school year ended and still have seven long weeks before the new one would begin. We would be new people in the community, one in which there were not a whole lot of kids and many would be away for the summer. I needed something for C.

Poking around online I discovered that the Euro Space Center in Belgium has an overnight summer space camp and beginning in June, Brussels Airlines would be reinstating its three times a week flights between Conakry. Given that C had been expressing interest in more science-based classes, this seemed to be a sign from above. I checked in with the space camp organizers to find out if there was space available and which weeks were in English and then with my leadership at Post, who quickly approved my time off to get C to and from the camp. We were all set to go.

Belgium is waffle paradise. These looked way too sweet, but it was a pleasure just seeing them and knowing they were there, just in case

Then a week before our departure on the first Thursday in August, there were protests in Conakry. Demonstrations had been scheduled and cancelled before, or scheduled but not amounted to much. But these protests turned out to be more than expected. They lasted longer and were more violent and they spilled over into the following day. Though they did not block access to the airport, they did make the most direct route difficult, changing a 30 minute drive into a possible multi-hour journey. When protest organizers announced that there would be more scheduled the following Thursday, I asked my bosses if they would approve my leaving a day earlier; they approved wholeheartedly.

I spent several hours on the phone and online the Sunday before departure, working to change our flights. Brussels Airlines only flies Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; the Tuesday flight was full and the Saturday flight did not give me a comfortable margin to get C to space camp should it be delayed or cancelled. The agent tried to route me using miles as that was how I purchased my original flight, but the only routing was to Lisbon, through Munich with an overnight, and then on to Brussels. Unfortunately, the Munich flight on Lufthansa could not be confirmed due to a potential airline strike. We were contending with not only protests at our origin, but labor disputes in Europe that was part of the chaotic travel summer. That was not going to work. The United agent, however, could not directly book me on the Lisbon to Brussels flight, so I needed to book that one online myself, while keeping the agent on the line. I did not want to cancel my flight and return the miles until I had another flight secured. Finally, success.

If you do not want Belgium waffles, then you gotta have Belgian fries.

All of this gave me a solid glimpse into how challenging it may be to take leave away from Conakry. There are limited flights, challenging schedules, usually with late evening or early morning departures, frequent delays, and higher price tags. Toss in a demonstration day and airline snafus and it just gets more interesting.

Our trip started on Wednesday at midnight on a four-hour flight to Lisbon. The flight left late and there was not enough time to really sleep. We had two hours on the ground and then another three hours to Brussels. It turned out the extra day was very helpful as we had little energy to do much of anything. Luckily, I had booked a hotel close to the airport and they let us check in early. After napping and relaxing, our only activity was to walk in the cute little neighborhood near the airport to the grocery store and back.

On our second day in country, we took an Uber to Laeken, the northern part of Brussels, to visit mini Europe and the 1958 World’s Fair landmark, the Atomium. Though these sites are listed as two of top ones to visit in Brussels, I did not visit them during my first trip to Belgium in 1998. I have no memory of even knowing they existed. Nonetheless, C and enjoyed hours there visiting the top sites of Europe in miniature and exploring inside the giant sculpture that marries science fiction and modern art. Afterwards, we took an Uber down to the stunning Grand Place. C and I were started to tire, but I wanted to give her just a glimpse of the majesty and beauty of probably the most stunning of European central squares. At first C complained she wanted to just go back to the hotel, but for a moment or two she completely forgot about that as we stood in that square. After we turned in wonder around at the architecture and fed our sweet tooth with some decadent ice cream from the Godiva chocolate shop and took a short stroll down to the Mannekin Pis, C told me that she no longer wanted to return to Paris very soon. “Mom,” she said, “we have been to Paris twice now, but I think I like Brussels more. I want to see more of Europe.” Mission accomplished.

The following morning, Saturday, we returned to the airport to pick up a rental car. I am usually a wee bit nervous starting out driving in a new country, but after the chaos of Conakry, the roads of Belgium were welcoming. We drove just an hour south to the Wallonian town of Dinant. In planning for our trip, I looked for the best places for us to visit south of Brussels on our way to the Euro Space Center. Other than Brussels, the biggest tourist draws tend to be Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges, all to the north and northwest of the capital. The photos of Dinant kept pulling me back again and again and I knew if nowhere else, we needed to visit this town. It did not disappoint.

Dinant’s location, squeezed between a rocky promontory and the river Meuse, has guaranteed human interest for millennia. It’s 13th century Gothic cathedral is built into the rock face just below the 11th century citadel and alongside townhouses that range from 16th century to 20th. The oldest house in town is a 16th century townhome built by a Spaniard.

C and I walked up the steps to the Citadel, where we spent at least 90 minutes enjoying the historic displays and panoramas. We took the cable car down and had lunch alongside the river and later an hour long tourist boat cruise on the Meuse. This little town is also famous as the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, so we also were on the hunt to find as many of the painted saxophone sculptures around town, as well as a golden saxophone, and a saxophone shaped water clock, and the statue of Adolpe Sax sitting in front of his former home.

Sites of Dinant

In the afternoon we drove six kilometers south to the 19th century manor home turned hotel where we would spend the evening. After a long day of walking and sightseeing, C crashed immediately in the room. I took a short stroll around the grounds, drinking in the quiet, the nature surrounding the manicured lawns. We are still getting used to Conakry and I have no doubt that the vibrant, chaotic city will grow on us, but its difference from the grand historic cities and laid back countryside of Europe suddenly felt quite stark.

In the morning, before heading to our next destination, I drove a short way up the road to try to catch a glimpse of the Walzin Chateau, an imposing gothic-revival castle that stands on a cliff overlooking the Lesse River. I had quite by accident seen it on Google Maps as I was planning out our drive. Unfortunately, the best few of the castle is across the river and on some private land, which we quickly found we could not cross (the barbed wire fence and the “do not trespass” signs were pretty clear). So, we could see it only in profile before we gave up, returned to the car, and then drove on to Han-sur-Lesse.

I had had this idea. C loves animals and has a particular fondness for wolves and foxes. When working out what to do before dropping her off at space camp on Sunday evening, I found a wild animal park only 20 minutes north of the Euro Space Center. The Parc Animalier du Domaine des Grottoes de Han looked like it had some nice walking trails where we could see wolves. I planned for an hour or so walking and then lunch and perhaps time at the caves. I am afraid I did not do much more research than that.

It turns out the park is huge. Set on 620 acres of land, the park has both forested areas and wide lawns. At the ticket counter, I learned we should have a minimum of THREE hours to walk all the trails. A quick look at the map and I calculated we would likely have to cut short the expedition and return to the tourist center after the first trail.

Right away we got off on the wrong foot. We waited for the historic trolley train to take us to the first trailhead, but there seemed to be no train coming for at least 15 minutes. I insisted that we just go ahead and take the walking trail to the walking trail. This did not go over well with C who angrily stomped alongside. It went over even less after 20 minutes when we heard the trolley pass us by. We made it to the start of the trail after nearly 30 minutes and the first animals were just large highland cows and wild boars, both of which were far back in the enclosures and frankly not something we had a hankering to see. I got the full force of C’s pre-teen silent treatment (which isn’t all that silent because it involves random stomping, some small rock kicking, and the occasional heavy sigh).

This is not at all how I had hoped this would go. I told C this. I got some deep heat seeking laser eye flashes in return. I said we could turn back at the first opportunity, but C noted that in doing so we would skip the wolf and lynx enclosures. These were now her sole raison d’être. I had dragged her here and so we *would* see these animals. I agreed. And then things got better. The walking trail really is nicely maintained and includes a small sky bridge course with a view over the valley. We saw animals, including the wolves. We had some ice cream. We rode a open bus for the last section and returned to the park entrance by trolley. On the pedestrian street of Han-sur-Lesse we found one place still open for a late lunch at nearly 4 PM. The Belgian fries were restorative. Then off we were to space camp!

At the Euro Space Center solar system yard

At the Euro Space Center, C and I completed check-in procedures and then together we were shown to her dorm room where she would sleep and hang out for the next five nights. We picked out her bed, a bottom bunk, collected the bedding and got her set up. Other kids, including another American, were arriving. Then suddenly it was time for me to go; I did not quite what to do with myself. My daughter’s first overnight camp and I decide it should be in a foreign country?! Of course I did…we spend most of our lives living and traveling in foreign countries. But what did I do now? C noted that some of the other campers had their favorite stuffies with them so she asked if I would return to the car and bring her hers. I happily did so, grateful for something to do. But once I handed it over C gave me a very meaningful look, telling me it was time for me to go.

I headed to the parking lot and off on my own adventure.