As the song says, it's the most wonderful time of the year across Europe. While preparations have been underway for a month or more in many of the biggest light shows across London, its now less than a month away putting me quite into the holiday spirit.
I've been thinking a lot about the infamous Christmas markets that so many flock to Europe for. Despite the cold weather, or perhaps in part of it, they are the perfect occasion to welcome the season. Our first visit was Germany back in 2011 when we first started on our expat adventure and it took 3 years for us to make another visit.
When Paul's family came to visit in 2014, we took in everything London has to offer for Christmas, from Winter Wonderland, ice skating at the Natural History Museum, carols and lights across the city, but we still wanted more Christmas. So, we grabbed a train and headed across the channel to Belgium.
Once in Bruges, we set to finding our apartment. The great thing about apartments are that they get you a local feel, the hard part is navigating less signposted streets. Our wandering was not in vain though, we meandered through the cobbled streets, peeking into windows filled with Christmas decorations and gifts as we passed. Following the canal, we found our home for the weekend conveniently situated near the oldest pub in Bruges, Herberg Vlissinghe. The pub was charming with wooden panels, a carved wood bar and a metal fireplace that was far too tempting for a 3 year old with beer that was far too tempting for grown men.
The main attraction for us was the markets so we made our way back into the city centre. In Germany, the market took over the entire city, but here, perhaps due to the city size and perhaps due to the fact it wasn't Germany, everything was concentrated in the square. A skating rink formed the centre with circles of food and mulled wine stands around the outskirts; it was too crowded to snatch an open table so we balanced mulled wine in one hand and sausage in another. The market had all the normal stands you'd expect, but somehow was a little less Christmas market than I had hoped.
Undeterred, we spent the rest of our time alternating walking around the city, with shopping, eating and drinking. The men picked out Cambrinus with their selection of over 400 beers, but we were pleased to find they also had a hot chocolate in the traditional Belgian style, where you're presented with hot milk and a "spoon" of chocolate to swirl in and create your drink. The women picked shops full of Belgian lace and Christmas decorations. We all chose plenty of food stops along the way.
Most of our attempts at true sight seeing failed - we did manage a visit to see the Madonna of Bruges, but our canal boat was thwarted due to rain and when we tried to go to the bell tower, the line was so long and it was so windy that we abandoned the plan and got hot chocolate instead. It was our first trip with friends with kids and perhaps the perfect introduction to how travel could be with a little one (which was perfect impeccable timing as unbeknownst to us, I was pregnant at the time).
Looking back two years later, it's hard to remember specifically what we did throughout the whole weekend, yet I still recall little moments and details; picking out hats in a shop off the square, following the crowd only to find a chocolate nativity as the star attraction, picking out the perfect chocolate flavours and dealing with what I know is the over tired toddler. But despite the fuzzy memories, I remember it as a great trip among family and friends. It's been a lesson to us - sometimes the best trips are those where you aren't rushing from site to site, but rather enjoy the true meaning of vacation - and of course a great hot chocolate!