Category Archives: Europe

Lest We Forget – Flanders

Today I visited several Canadian World War I memorials and cemeteries in Flanders, Belgium. This really puts into perspective the great sacrifice that our soldiers made for our country and for the freedom of our European allies.

This is particularly special for me, as my grandfather fought in World War I for the Canadian Army. He was stationed in France near Vimy Ridge. He was one of the lucky ones who survived and returned home to our great country. I dedicate this post to my grandfather’s memory.

My first stop was to Essex Farm Cemetery, where John McCrae wrote the famous poem In Flanders Fields. As my Canadian friends know, the poem is:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

– John McCrae

Below are 3 photos. The 1st shows a plaque where John McCrae wrote the poem. While standing in front of this plaque you can see the cemetery on your left (2nd photo). But remember that during the war there were no gravestones – instead there were crosses – hence “between the crosses, row on row”. If you turn to your right in front of the plaque, you look down a narrow street to where the Germans were shelling/shooting from their trench line (3rd photo). The poem really hits you when you are standing where John McCrae stood.

My next stop was Tyne Cot Cemetery, where nearly 12,000 Commonwealth soldiers are buried. You can see this in the photo with the white headstones and the cross in the distance. Many of the headstones are marked as unknown as there was no way to identify the remains. This includes soldiers from the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other allies.

Finally I visited some sites in the town of Ypres. In the photos you can see a large gate, called the Menin Gate. This is dedicated to all the Commonwealth missing soldiers whose remains were not found/identified. Their names are engraved throughout the Menin Gate, and number over 54,000. Also in Ypres is the In Flanders Fields Museum. This museum provides a very thoughtful and informative history of World War I in Belgium.

This has been a great day for reflection and remembrance. We all have so much to be thankful for – most of all our freedom. We must remember to ensure that this kind of human devastation never happens again – Lest We Forget.

Shawn

Brussels/Antwerp – Quirky and Awesome

Brussels is one of the quirkiest cities I’ve found in Europe – and it’s a good thing! How is it quirky you may ask – let me tell you:

  • While walking to my hostel, I found a billboard ad with a dog being flattened by a train! It’s a reminder that the train always has priority! Check out the photo below
  • The mascot for the city is “Manneken Pis.” It’s literally a statue of a kid taking a leak. The city changes the costume for the statue on a regular basis and displays them in the city museum
  • The city encourages graffiti artists and comic art throughout the city. I found one mural of the classic cartoon “The Adventures of Tintin.” I loved this show growing up. Tintin and his drunken sailor sidekick are escaping from some adversity!
  • For Expo 58, the city built a giant stainless steel copy of an iron crystal magnified by 165 million times! Who needs a tower, a statue, or arch when you can have a giant iron crystal?
  • As you probably know, Brussels is the capital of the European Union. Right outside the European Parliament, the city set up a bunch of ostriches, half of them with heads buried in the dirt! A great throw out to the EU’s politicians. Maybe we should get something like this back home in Ottawa – Trudeau could even get a selfie with them!

On a more conventional note, the museums are great in Brussels. The history museum is very comprehensive and has artifacts/displays from all of over the world. It even had statues/engravings of my favourite Egyptian pharaoh – Akhenaton. He tried to wipe out the Egyptian pantheon and make Egypt worship his new and only sun-god, Aton. It’s rare to have Akhenaton artifacts because later pharaohs called him a heretic and ordered all things linked to Akhenaton to be destroyed… cool blip in Egyptian history.

I also made a day trip out to Antwerp. A very visually stunning place. It has one of the nicest train stations in the world – architecturally speaking. So many huge and ornate buildings – the photo of the palace/fountain is from Antwerp.

I’ll be in Brussels until Tuesday, when I fly out to Rome. Lots of more cool stuff to check out! Until then

Cheers, Shawn

Bruges – Fun Place to Get Lost

Bruges, Belgium, is as picture perfect as a town can be! Cobblestone streets intermingled with century old architecture and flowing canals – what’s not to love? I spent today just wandering around the streets and checking out this gorgeous town. It’s fun to just take random streets to see where you end up. There’s always a church steeple or tower to guide you back!

Some points of interest:

  • If you’re into art, check out the Groeningemuseum for a vast array of Belgian/Flemish artists from throughout the centuries
  • For some exercise take a 360 step climb up the Belfort, a bell tower that overlooks the city
  • The Basilica of the Holy Blood: this Roman Catholic Basilica houses a relic that was thought to be brought from Jerusalem in the Middle Ages – a phial of blood from Jesus Christ. I stopped in at the right time for a public veneration of the relic. A very beautiful ceremony and church

I find that travelling in Europe during the fall (autumn) is ideal. The colourful leaves make for beautiful sights, the temperature is perfect for walking around, there are fewer crowds, and prices are lower! For my friends in Canada, you can fly to Europe for as low as $300 (one way) with Westjet. Sounds tempting doesn’t it!

I have another couple of days here in Bruges, and then I’ll be off to Brussels. So far, Belgium is a fantastic place to be!

Cheers, Shawn

Stonehenge and Bath – Journey Through Time

Today’s journey began with a coach ride out to an amazing pre-historic site – Stonehenge! No one knows for sure, but it’s estimated that this site was constructed around 5000 years ago! Somehow these ancient people hauled the massive stones to this site, with some as far away as 140 miles!

I must admit that I was rather giddy going on this trip. Stonehenge has always been a place I wanted to visit. Actually being there was a very cool experience. Even though it doesn’t overpower you like the Pantheon or some massive temple, Stonehenge has a certain tranquility and agelessness that hit home. To think that people 5000 years ago put their energy, knowledge, and skill into a place of reverence shows the link that modern-day humans have with our ancestors.

From Stonehenge I continued the journey onto Bath, a city built by the Romans around 2000 years ago. The natural hot springs were made for a Roman style public bath, which the Romans thought was a gift from their gods. The city’s buildings are built almost exclusively from a local “Bath stone,” which has a soothing yellow/honey colour. The architecture is beautiful, and the abbey church has very stunning stained glass windows.

From Bath I hopped back on the bus for the three-hour ride back to London. Just a few more days in London until the journey continues on. I’ll enjoy the English Breakfasts until then!

Cheers, Shawn

FreelyWander Resurrection

Hi Everyone,

It’s Shawn here. If you haven’t noticed, the blog has been silent for almost a year… sorry about that. I was having too much fun scuba diving in Thailand, feasting on the cuisine in Vietnam, climbing the Great Wall (you know where), and enjoying the National Parks in my home country of Canada! I’ll give you a quick recap of the adventures in this past year.

My last post was from Rome nearly 1 year ago. Jon and I then flew to Thailand, and spent 4 months in Southeast Asia. From there we flew to Hong Kong and wandered around China for a month. I finished the first leg of my journey in Japan for a month.

From Tokyo, Jon and I took diverging paths. Jon continued travelling in Southeast Asia after Tokyo, and spent the summer in Prague. He ventured out to London and flew back to Canada this past September. We met up in our hometown and swapped tales of our many adventures.

I headed back to Canada in May, and based myself in the Okanagan Valley. I visited with family and friends, and made lots of fantastic camping trips to Canada’s and the USA’s National Parks! I then flew out to London, England on October 2. I will be in Europe for 2 months, and then Mexico/Central America for 2.5 months. My wanderings will then venture back to Canada and to my work on February 20, 2017. This is the pre-ordained return date in my contract! Yes, I got a 2 year leave of absence from work to go backpacking… some companies are this cool!

So, what does this mean for the blog? 2 things:

  1. I will begin posting about my new adventures in Europe, Mexico, and Central America
  2. Also, I will make postings about our travels in Asia, and my ventures in Canada/USA. I’ll label these postings so you don’t get confused between my past/present travel postings.

Good times await! Stay tuned for the many adventures! Cheers!

Shawn

Rome – Wonder and Awe

Rome is a city to behold! It is a living testament to the glories of ancient empires, religious leaders, brilliant artists, and forges on as a modern western capital.

We spent a good week in Rome and enjoyed the many historical sites and churches. The Vatican was quite amazing, especially St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, and the Sistine Chapel. In the corner of St. Peter’s Square, there’s a portable type building that serves as a Vatican Post Office. This is run by the Swiss, so the service is much more efficient than the regular Italian postal system. Some stereotypes are true… in any case, be sure to send your mail from the Vatican instead of the Italian post!

We made the rounds to the main destinations, including the Pantheon, Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, etc. These are all quite fantastic! We also hit our fair share of beautiful Cathedrals, Basilica’s, and churches. I’d say my favorite was St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. It’s worth the metro ride out!

Well, this is the end of the Euro trip! The next destination is Bangkok, Thailand. It’s hard to believe that half a year has already passed on this journey. We’ve met so many amazing people along the way, and had some fantastic experiences!

A whole new set of adventures await in Asia! Onward and eastward!

Cheers, Shawn

Florence – Art, Beauty, and Class

Florence is truly amazing, and one of my favorite destinations so far! There is a charm about the city that makes you feel welcome, and the architecture is a joy to take in. The city has a sizable population, but is very easy to get around and explore. Even the street signs are fun to check out. Florence has a tradition of turning boring street signs into entertaining forms of expression – check out the photo below.

It goes without saying that Florence has one of the best art collections in the world. Highlights include Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, the Dome of the Cathedral, and much more. It’s worth taking your time to explore the many museums and galleries to fully appreciate their magnificence!

We learned about the city’s history, such as how rivalling medieval lords would compete by building ever larger/taller defense towers. Throughout the old city, you can see many of these towers still standing – but are now part of apartment buildings, shops, and restaurants! So cool!

All-in-all, Florence was a blast. I’m kind of sad to leave, but have Rome to look forward to next!

Cheers, Shawn

Camping in Venice

Why, you may ask, did we camp in this most exquisite destination? The reason – Venice is insanely expensive! Our camp site was off the island of Venice, about a 15 minute bus ride away.

I had mixed feelings about Venice. On the one hand, it is a beautiful city and a definite must see for any traveler. On the other hand, much of modern-day Venice is built solely for tourists and is priced for visitors wanting (or at least willing) to unload an obscene amount of cash. Perhaps a few more cities like this and the European economic crisis could be solved!

Enough of the soap box! It was a lot of fun to hop a water taxi and zip around the canals. There are multiple islands to explore, each with its unique flavour. I’d also recommend taking a day to walk around the main islands on foot. You have a 98.7% chance of getting lost, but that’s half the fun! Take in one of the few cities left where the water rules over the road!

The journey goes south – Florence awaits!

Shawn

Naples – Fascinating, Frantic, and Fantastic

There is no city on the planet like Naples! The chaotic buzz of the city has such an energy, and was at first unsettling after the tranquility of Matera. But we embraced it, and took a walking tour to check out this metropolis bathed in history!

Naples is unique in that many of the ancient buildings were not destroyed – instead, new buildings were just built into the old! Walking down a street you can see a multitude of architectural styles, and a Roman gate overarching a modern street. I’ve never seen anything quite like this before!

And the food! I’ve eaten the best pizza and ice cream in my life while in Naples. Hmmm, so good! Another very interesting sight is the Greek/Roman aqueduct underneath Naples. You can wander around the aqueduct and get an insight into ancient civil engineering. A fun fact – this aqueduct was also used as a giant bomb shelter for the city during World War II.

While in Naples we took a day trip to Pompeii. This is the Roman city that was destroyed and buried by the volcano Mt. Vesuvius. It’s quite a feeling to wander around the streets of a city that was destroyed nearly 2000 years ago. In one of the photos below, you can see a plaster cast of one of the victims of the eruption. It goes to show the respect we must still have for Mother Nature!

Next stop is Venice. Until then!

Shawn

Matera – City Lost in Time

The ferry ride from Croatia to Italy went smoothly. The seats were reclining and allowed for a pretty good rest. We landed in Bari, and found the train to bring us to Matera.

Matera is a magically distinct place – it’s an ancient city built right into the mountainside, has the relics of medieval monasteries, and has such a distinctive aura that modern-day film makers seek this area out to capture some of the magic! Check out the photos.

We checked out several cave churches with medieval frescoes painted by monks. It was really fascinating and felt like stepping back in time. One day I wandered around the hiking trails surrounding Matera, and took in the views of the valley. Very nice!

And obviously, the food is fantastic! The pasta, pizza, and ice cream here in Italy are to die for! As Matera is off the mainstream tourist grid, the prices in Matera are very reasonable. You will have to plan your eating and shopping schedule, though, as the riposo (siesta) is taken very seriously. Plan to eat lunch from 12pm-2pm, and dinner from 8pm-10pm. With this knowledge you’ll do just fine in this beautiful city!

Cheers, Shawn