Category Archives: Travel Writing

Christmas in Europe

Of the many things Europe does well, it’s the continent’s magnificent Christmas festivities that can charm any cynical traveler. From Scotland to Switzerland a spirit of festivity can be felt in the wintertime air. The traditions of the season are still strong in this thoroughly modern part of the world, where bustling Christmas markets fill the main square of big cities and bucolic, half-timbered villages alike. In the cathedrals, choirs singing the great medieval Christmas hymns fill the cavernous spaces with angelic harmonies, their melodies carried to the rafters on frosty puffs of breath.

One of the most interesting aspects of Europe is the subtle variations to each country’s celebratory traditions. I find them fascinating. Here’s a sampling of those variations from three different cultures: The German, French and English traditions.

Germany, despite being a progressive powerhouse not known for sentimentality, is actually one of the most magical places to experience the season. Old traditions die hard and Germany reaches far into its medieval past to embrace and celebrate the season. From the Bavaria to the Baltic, from the Black Forrest to Berlin, its people break out the gingerbread recipes, the carols, and the colors of the season.

Christmas Market in Germany
Christmas Market in Germany

Performances of the Nutcracker are to be found in theatres across the country, while well-built manger scenes adorn the cobbled public spaces of both the Catholic South and Protestant North.

Sprawling Christkindle Markets fill the squares of communities across the country, bursting with music and food and seasonal décor. Traditional favorites such as gingerbread and sweet prune-and-fig candies are served at stalls under a kaleidoscope of Christmas colors. It’s not unusual for a small chorus to be serenading bundled-up shoppers and sightseers with classic Germanic carols.

But the singing of carols is especially beloved and ingrained in the Christmastime traditions of England. In fact, they’ve been a staple of the holiday in England since at least the sixteenth century, as many of the country’s Christmas traditions are. The great cathedrals of Salisbury, Westminster, etc. hold spellbinding choral events by candlelight and colorful outdoor Christmas markets buzz with activity.

Do you like your Christmas tree? Thank England, where the tradition of the Christmas tree originated. The custom originated when pagan-era Druids decorated their places of worship with evergreen trees in the dead of winter, which to them represented life that could not be extinguished despite the cold and the dark. The later Christians appreciated this symbolism, as it reminded them of Christ’s promise of eternal life, and adopted the custom.

The holiday dishes are of course a pivotal aspect of any celebration, and the diversity in food served on the big day is one of the widely most varying customs of Europe’s Christmas celebration. In England the regulars like turkey and veggies are served, but desert is the real treat: The all-important Christmas pudding, a fruity desert usually made with figs and brandy, and mincemeat pies, both fixtures since the sixteenth century.

Another particularly English tradition also includes the wearing of a colorful paper crown—everyone is a king or queen at Christmas. Needless to say there is tea involved on this wintry day as well, often at 6pm on Christmas to warm the soul.

From Bayeux to Arles, France revels in its ancient cultural traditions as it celebrates the Noel with that classically French combination of style and joy. Gift giving is less emphasized than gathering and celebrating simple rituals with family and friends—and sharing a fine meal with good wine, of course.

Notre Dame decked out for Christmas.
Notre Dame decked out for Christmas.

Paris, the City of Light, celebrates in a less red-and green-light gaudy way than big US cities. But its neighborhoods often host popular Christmas markets that are as festive as any.

In the countryside, where the culture of any people really resides and thrives, the traditions are stronger and richer. The warm tones of local choirs singing medieval carols can be heard emanating from candle-lit, thirteenth-century churches. Many families will attend the midnight Mass and return home to enjoy le réveillon, or the “wake-up!” meal.

And that meal is fantastic. Being France, the food is an integral part of the celebration—in fact it’s the culinary high point of the year for many. Delicacies like foie gras, oysters and escargots are popular aperitifs, while the entrée tends to be more straight-forward dishes like goose (popular in Alsace) and turkey (more popular in Burgundy). Meat (including ham and duck) is paired with a good red wine and served with the ever-popular chestnut stuffing, a French favorite for generations. Chubby truffles are another beloved feature of most dinners. While the use of the actual Yule log has diminished somewhat, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Noel. It’s a sugary delight of chocolate and chestnuts.

After the Mass and le réveillon, the children put their shoes in front of the fireplace hoping that Pere Noel (Father Christmas) will fill them with candy, nuts, fruit and gifts. As the kids drift off to sleep, the adults sit up late, hang goodies from the tree and polish off the Yule log. Before they turn in for the night, a softly burning candle is are left on the table in case the Virgin Mary passes by, a long-standing custom of this Catholic country.

Finding New Perspectives on Familiar Places

It can be difficult to find new angles through which to view places you already know well. Human nature being what is, it takes a conscious effort to see anything through new eyes. We tend to see only what we’re familiar with, and what strikes our vision on the most surface levels: the old buildings, the people, the streets, the here-and-now bustle that is so easy to get caught up in. But shifting our approach is sometimes needed if we are to really appreciate all the layers and the richness any place has to offer.

As a travel writer I’m always forced to do this, and though it’s challenging, it always rewards me with a much deeper perspective of a city’s beating heart and long-hidden scars.

For example, trying to find a topic in which to write about can suddenly have me thinking thematically. In the case of Amsterdam, I was recently casting about for a theme. The picturesque canals and predictable clichés are worn out. I wanted to go deeper.

Go deeper; don't settle for the surface.
Go deeper; don’t settle for the surface.

Of course, a well-deserved reputation for religious tolerance in previously intolerant times is a strong undercurrent in the city’s history, shaping its character. But everyone knows about the city’s lenient attitude towards marijuana and prostitution. The pot-selling “coffeshops” and the brightly painted brothels of the Red Light District are hard to miss, and at any rate weed and sex are not exactly major taboos anymore. So, in doing this “personality profile”, as I like to view travel writing, I decided to focus on the less well-known, more hidden-in-plain-sight landmarks that quietly but effectively tell the story of Amsterdam’s legacy of tolerance in intolerant times.

The point is, looking around the city for these things forced me to look through fresh eyes. I began to notice things I hadn’t paid much attention to before. Statues and plaques commemorating Amsterdam’s history—normally easy to pass over in the bustling, thoroughly modern city—began to emerge from the background, as if reaching out through the centuries to educate me with a silent power.

Paying attention to these small reminders eventually told a story, a long and rich narrative, of how the city’s philosophy of tolerance became a beacon for many persecuted people seeking a safe refuge from their own country’s intolerance in a way that the pot bars and sex shops could not. Small churches emerged from the urban crush and hordes of camera-toting tourists, inviting me into their quiet, solemn interior just as they’d invited minority sects whose beliefs had marked them out for discrimination. Small Catholic churches in times of Protestant intolerance (and vice versa) thrived here, as did humble little synagogues that operated without interference or malice from the city’s fathers.

Around a corner from a busy street, a small brick building in a quiet courtyard bears a faded plaque indicating that English pilgrims came here to worship before heading to the New World. They prayed here, and then boarded the Mayflower to escape persecution in their home country.  They were made to feel comfortable here.

The remnants of more recent times came to the fore as well. I begin to notice the many houses bearing historical plaques indicating that the occupants courageously sheltered Jewish families during the Second Word War.

Not far away a statue of a portly, none-too-attractive dockworker seems at first glance to be a forgettable, bland post-war tribute to laborers. Look closer and you’ll find an inscription indicating that it memorializes the brave stand of the Amsterdam’s dockworkers, who staged the first strike undertaken in Occupied Europe to protest the mistreatment of the city’s Jews by the Nazis.

The strike, held a few days after 400 Jewish men were herded together on the spot where the statue now stands, was brutally put down by the SS within hours, and is remembered by few today. The statue’s rotund subject was a real-life non-Jewish dockworker who participated in the strike because he felt it was the right thing to do.

The Dockworker statue commemorating the Strike of 1941
The Dockworker statue commemorating the Strike of 1941

A small room in the city’s historic Dutch Theatre, once a point of assembly for Jews about to be shipped off to concentration camps, holds a humble memorial of three little stones. The memorial seems unimportant. Search for the true story, however, and you’ll find that the three stones represent a local man named Walter Suskind, his wife and small daughter. Suskind was the hero who smuggled 1,200 Jewish children to safety during the war. In 1945 his activities were discovered by the Nazis and he and his family were themselves sent to Auschwitz, never to return.

Soon I begin to understand how many centuries’ worth of brave Amsterdammers have risked it all to welcome and aid minorities in dark times, and that courage was common place in the face of tyranny. It underscores the strength of Amsterdam’s heritage of tolerance more than any fashionable pot bar or cheesy sex shop ever could.

My point is, the “what” that you look for isn’t nearly as important as the act of searching for new ways to connect to a city’s unique DNA. The important thing is looking from a thematic perspective, searching for that thread of history that informs its culture. This can provide the prism through which you can see through the here-and-now veneer and access the richness of a city’s historical character, forged in the crucible of time and trial.

A Taste of Alsace

Tucked amongst the rolling green vineyards at the foot of  Northeastern France’s Vosges Mountains, a collection of immaculately preserved little villages hide five centuries’ worth of history and expert wine making in their colorful Renaissance-era half-timbers. Dotting Alsace’s rural Route du Vin—the loop that ties together some of France’s best vineyards—marvelously authentic villages like Riquewihr, Kayserberg, Eguisheim, and Hunawihr have happily defied the onslaught of time.

village in rural Alsace, France
village in rural Alsace, France

Long beloved by wine enthusiasts and vacationing French, the cobble-stoned hamlets have become known to tourists worldwide who flock to soak up the authentic old-world cuteness—and sample their excellent vino.

The almost perfect preservation of the villages is in itself a minor miracle. The region, not far from the French-German border, has for centuries found itself the object of a tug-of-war by Europe’s two great imperial powers. The Germans believed their rightful territory extended to the mountains, while the French considered the Rhine to be the natural border. The picturesque territory—with its mellow Alsatian plain spilling out from the Vosges Mountains and renowned for its grapes since Roman times—was tussled over by diplomats and kings from the early middle ages onward.

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As a result of centuries of boarder-moving depending on which country had won the latest struggle, the region developed a fascinating hybridized culture. It was reflected in the language (Alsatian is a peculiar dialect) and the cuisine (the savory French dishes carries elements of the hearty Germanic fare). It’s not usual to see street signs bearing both a French and a German name; most of the signs date from the time when their national affiliation was constantly in flux. The residents of the villages, many of them vintners, consider themselves Alsatian first and Frenchmen—or occasionally Germans—a distant second.

Despite the political drama, the region prospered during a medieval boom in its wine industry. The resulting wealth led to many of the beautiful structures that stand today. The photogenic villages—crammed with wine shops, galleries, bakeries and stay-a-while cafés—look similar but have their subtle differences.

Tiny Kayserberg boasts a historic hometown hero—Nobel Prize winner Dr. Albert Schweitzer, famous for his humanitarian efforts in Africa, was born here in 1875. In addition to the notable local, the town also has an ancient church holding a historic 1518 altarpiece. Its proximity to the vineyard-blanketed hills and a looming castle in the hills makes it popular with the hiking set.

 

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A little further along the winding Route du Vin is the cute-as-can-be hamlet of Eguisheim. The closest village to regional city Colmar, Eguisheim’s Hansel-and-Gretel aesthetic exerts a powerful pull on romantics. The collection of brightly painted medieval houses—some more charmingly ramshackle than others—make meandering down its winding alleyways a treat.

Hunawihr has a gorgeous Renaissance-era church in addition to its collection of cute half-timbered dwellings. Riquewihr is another gem. Boasting a magnificent medieval bell tower, a museum and fine cafés, it crams historic and culinary treats into its confines.

village 2

That is not to say the area was untouched by the tumult of the twentieth century. In fact, the region so used to being a political pawn found itself as the battleground in a profoundly important military event. As the New Years’ Day 1945 glowed pink at sunrise, German forces unleashed a surprise attack in the Vosges Mountains, sweeping down into the sleeping Alsatian plain. The region’s villagers were unknowingly in the middle of Operation Nordwind, Hitler’s last offensive of World War Two.

Ferocious fighting ensued over the course of several weeks in subzero temperatures. Allied and German vehicles alike became bogged down in the snow and mud while savage combat tore apart ancient towns like Bennwihr. In the sorts of random twists of fate that occur in war, the villages of Riquewihr, Kayserberg, Eguisheim, and Hunawihr were left unscathed while unlucky Bennwihr was almost completely destroyed by the dueling armies.

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Despite the early pummeling, the Allies rallied and by February had reclaimed the vineyards, villages and mountains from the Germans. The failed offensive decimated much of Hitler’s remaining forces, and the Allies penetrated Germany not long after. Once again quiet settled upon the region and the villagers went back to making their wine as they had for centuries. Post-war tourists discovered the area’s charm and the resulting boon encouraged locals to keep their communities just as previous generations had—clean and quaint.

Now the villages welcome wine enthusiasts and romantics alike to be enchanted by their cobbled lanes, medieval wine cellars, and colorful Renaissance houses. Sample some of the local product and wander the winding back alleys with your camera before lounging at a café. The villages are full of hardworking folks who are happy to share their little slice of history with any traveler interested enough to seek it out.

Introducing travelers to Europe’s riches

This summer I’ll be spending several weeks helping to guide travelers through Europe’s best sights. A dream job to be sure, but the stakes are high; the task of introducing people to the richness of Europe can be a heavy burden. Being in charge of a group’s travel safety and general exposure to the rich cultural treasures of any place is a daunting responsibility.

I adore this French village in Alsace region.
I adore this French village in Alsace region.

Curating a group’s travel experience is not for the faint of heart. The question is always how best to introduce people to the buzzing urban intensity of Rome, the humid, decadent decay of Venice and the vertigo-inducing heights of the chilly Swiss Alps. One person’s death march through the hot, crowded streets of Florence is another’s carnival of once-in-a-lifetime Renaissance sights. On the other hand, consider that same tour member’s restless boredom in an ancient half-timbered German hamlet. It’s another’s perfect medieval village vacation under the shadow of a ruined castle looming in the hills above.

The main task of any good tour guide is, of course, to help people connect to the history, the people and the culture of the place they’ve come so far to see. And different people connect to the culture in different ways. Some come for the food, while others could care less about the cuisine scene. Some just want to take in the sights, while still others need every historical detail you can offer them. One tour member’s Michelangelo is another’s gelato; it’s not right or wrong. It’s just different, because people are different.

A good guide can gently expose a conservative American mom to the permissive hedonism of canal-laced Amsterdam, and inspire her to think about the Dutch culture’s success in keeping drug abuse and teen pregnancy to record lows compared to our nation’s sad stats. Or bring the history of an otherwise lifeless site to life through a well-rendered story detailing the intense human drama it witnessed. The same guide can introduce the tired, indifferent sightseer to the majesty of the Louvre and the Uffizi Gallery, and walk out with a convert to the flashy, fleshy vividness of Renaissance humanist art.

So the tour guide’s other main challenge, then, is to help one connect to the place in their own way, on their terms. In other words, help them find what they’re looking for—and sometimes what they didn’t know they were looking for. Some come for enlightenment and some come for a good time. There is no reason they can’t leave with both, their bag filled with insights and fun memories that will last a lifetime.

 

Back from another adventure

Having just come back from another great trip, I’m reminded again of the richness of Europe and the gifts it keeps on giving to any traveler willing to seek them out. I went to France on assignment for three mid-size, nationally-distributed magazines, and set to work. Almost immediately. It’s amazing how engrossing traveling and learning can be, especially when you have the added incentive of a contract for a story that must be delivered. Poking around the countryside and investigating ancient abbeys, ruined castles, and little medieval towns gives me a charge like nothing else. It satisfies my twin desires of adventure and knowledge.

I adore this French village in Alsace region.
I adore this French village in Alsace region.

As usual, the interactions with locals carbonated the experience. Sharing a bench—and soon after, a lively conversation—with local man in half-timbered Rouen or chatting with the lady at the café table next to mine in the pretty little Burgundian city of Beaune added texture to the photos I’d captured with my camera. The clusters of pixels contained beautiful images of churches and historic buildings to be sure, but the connections forged with the everyday residents of these places gave depth and perspective to the memories in my own mind—a depth and perspective I hope will be felt by my readers.

It’s the local people—like the kindly town archivist in the German city who helped me make sense of his community’s tragic WWII history—that are the real repositories of history and tradition. Without him, I’d never had known about the moving memorial that sits on a seldom-visited hill just outside the town. It was a powerful, emotional experience to visit the lonely hill—the last resting place of so many of his community that lost their lives while the dueling armies fought it out around them—at sunset.

At those times you realize that the pretty stuff is only architecture.

Other travelers met on the road have become new friends too; I’ll soon be swapping trip highlights over email with the LA filmmaker from the Rhine River Valley village of Bacharach, the Seattle-area photographer from St. Goar, and the US psychology student from Colmar.

As I sit here shaking off jetlag and organizing my hastily-scribbled notes, I smile as I think about the experiences I crammed into my short trip. The research and photos I took will yield excellent material for my article assignments. But more importantly, the experiences are already sowing the seeds of ambition for my next adventure overseas.

 

Has It All Been Done?

Recently I was asked by a magazine to look at possibilities for an article. Specifically ideas for a Western European locale of historic importance that hadn’t been covered too widely. Not an easy task, it turns out. While scouring the map the thought entered my mind, “has it all been done before?” Just as when I’m playing my guitar and writing a tune, I wonder if every possible permutation of chords has already been explored.

The more I stared at the map, my eyes raking over familiar place names, the more I began to despair at the thought of “it all having been done.” Later that day, while talking to a friend, she mentioned in an off-hand way how her grandpa, who’d recently died, and was given a deeply moving military burial. “Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry to hear that. He was always really nice. Actually, I had no idea he’d been in the military.”

“Neither did I”, she said. “He only mentioned it a couple times that I recall, and I was a kid, so I didn’t really care.” Evidently she found out while talking to his friends and other relatives at the funeral. She proceeded to tell me the harrowing and sometimes grisly story about her granddad’s exploits in World War Two, where as a young man he fought bravely in France and Germany, and was awarded medals for valor.

“I didn’t know this stuff till recently,” she said, a tone of amazement in her voice. “And I never saw the medals or knew about them till they were taken out of a drawer and put in his coffin with him. He had lots of them. He was always so quiet; he kept all of that stuff inside.”

Reflecting on the conversation, I realized that, yes, there are still great stories to be told about amazing lives; stories that often go unknown until that life is extinguished. It’s just a matter of asking; of seeking. Every location holds its own stories too, just like people. I recall the many times I have found that a flower-blanketed field was the scene of an epic medieval battle that decided the fate of nations, or that a pile of stones in the countryside was once a soaring abbey that witnessed a coronation of a great king beneath its vaulted ceilings.

And that is our job as travel writers, and as people fortunate enough to be able to tell these stories: We need to seek, we need to ask. Because there are stories worth telling, and they hide in the most unlikely of places, like a quiet valley, a broken-down complex of haunted stones, and a kind old man’s heart.

Scars from Scotland and Bills from Budapest

A good traveler knows that it isn’t the number of places you’ve been that counts, it’s the number of meaningful experiences. Just like the saying, “it’s not the number of breaths you take that matters, it’s the moment that take your breath away.” Same with traveling. Miles mean little, so do stamps in your passport. That stuff is ancillary to the true story: the adventures themselves (be they emotional, fun, or just plain interesting) and the souls you were lucky enough to encounter along the way.

For example, a friend asked me today, “So how many places have you been to?” I get asked question a lot. My answer is always, “I don’t know. Never counted. But you know what? I’ve got a scar from Scotland, some friends from Florence and a parking bill from Budapest.”

All true, and all linked to great travel memories. All the best travelers use this sort of yardstick to measure their experiences abroad. The key is perspective: think qualitatively, not quantitatively.

Having said that, I think it’s safe to assume the Hungarian police have given up expecting me to pay that stupid fine they left on my windshield. To this day I’m not quite sure what it says on that thing, but it looks pretty cool in a frame. As for the scar from Scotland, that’s another story altogether.

Searching for Shakespeare in Historic Stratford-on-Avon

In this second in a series on the realities of being a being a travel writer, I want to mention something that is not only important to travel writing, but to the essence of good travel itself: Be open to surprising detours.

Case in point: A couple years ago I received an assignment to visit England’s Duxford Royal Air Force Base, a historic airfield in the countryside just outside of Cambridge. Duxford is part of the Imperial War Museum and hosts the world’s premier collection of vintage warplanes. I was to write about the base and its amazing array of famous fighters.

While making my way north from London, I made a point to stop at one of my favorite places, the charming town of Stratford-Upon-Avon. The picturesque town, about a hundred miles from the capital, is known the world over for its Shakespeare connection: The great man himself was born here (his childhood home is still there) and then retired to a nearby home after his dazzling career in London.

It was during my visit to Stratford (which was intended to be a quick one) that I heard about an archeological excavation being done at the site of New House, the home where Shakespeare spent in his final years. The home was demolished in the 1800’s, and took with it information about the man’s last decades.

Overseen by the Birmingham University Archeological Unit, the dig aimed to get some answers about the man behind the legend. To do that, large swaths of the property were being excavated. I took one look at the historic undertaking and decided I needed to find a way to be involved.

I introduced myself to the lead archeologist and got in touch with the head of the project. I explained that I was a visiting American travel writer and that I’d love to write an article about the dig. I asked to assist on the excavation in order to get a better feel for the project. Before I knew it, I had been ushered onto the grounds, issued a yellow vest, and given a quick tutorial in proper excavating.

The next day I was kneeling in the dirt, sweating heavily under the sweltering summer sun and scraping centuries of dirt from Shakespeare’s cellar floor. Trowel in hand, I followed the exposed lines of Elizabethan brickwork with my eyes. These lines formed the foundations of the Bard’s final home. It was thrilling to be a part of uncovering history.

My tenure as a pseudo-archeologist ended a week later when I decided I had all the research material I needed (translation: I was tired, sunburned, and out of clean clothes). I turned in my trowel and headed northward for the Duxford base.

I kept the yellow vest, though.

The Duxford visit went well, and the resulting story was successful. But the Shakespeare article remains one of my favorite pieces, and the experience was one of a kind. There were other incidents related to that visit, but those will not make it into the pages of a travel publication anytime soon. And none of them have happened if I hadn’t kept my antennae alert for a good story and then made the effort to get involved.

The moral of the story is that while a travel writer must get his story, he also must listen when a better one calls out.

Heed the call.

Seeing Seattle Through A Visitor’s Eyes

I was reminded recently of an odd quirk in our human nature. When most of us travel, our senses are hyper-attuned to our surroundings. This is partially a conscious decision; the adventure of discovery is exhilarating. But part of it is an unconscious function. When we are in a new and unfamiliar environment, seldom-used neural pathways light up and allow us to soak in all the sensory data of the new place. We become alert for possible threats.

Hanging out at home —in my case, Seattle—is quite a different situation. Like everyone else around the world, my city’s streets and sounds and sights tend to blur into the background as I go about my daily activities with an acquired case of tunnel vision. So, it’s always eye-opening when a visitor comes to town. I assume the role of tour guide, and just like magic, the blinders fall away to reveal a wonderful city that I’m lucky enough to live in but rarely notice.

This strange paradox played itself out this week as I entertained an old friend from my hometown of Chicago. Given a few days of vacation time, she headed out to the West Coast to spend a few days seeing Seattle and reconnect with me. I was happy to play tour guide, but did not expect such a vivid reminder of how our minds tend to filter out so much of our surrounding, for better or worse.

The little sensory details begin to come to the fore, revealing themselves as if they’d always been hidden from view. Showing my friend the quirky, urban crush of the Capitol Hill neighborhood, I experienced with fresh senses the cacophony of street bustle and the kaleidoscope of colorful outfits on the neighborhood’s flamboyant residents. Escorting my friend through a nicely manicured green space on Seattle University’s campus (which I often cross in a hurry to get somewhere else), I noticed the eye-popping array of colorful flowers as I rarely have before. Escorting her to a popular scenic overlook, I saw with fresh eyes the beauty of the Puget Sound as it stretched out toward the Olympic mountains, the last of the fall sun setting over shimmering water.

Occasionally I wonder why I stay here. There are warmer places, less expensive places, and cities with better food and less traffic. But watching the ships following the sunset out toward the open ocean, I took a deep breath of air infused with the scent of fresh pine and suddenly remembered why I always return here.

My guest is gone now, but my love for this beautiful city is rekindled. She thanked me for showing her my city. I did the same.

Thanksgiving overseas: Belgian beer in Bruges

Growing up in the Midwest, my Thanksgiving was the traditional spread of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, devoured at a relative’s home in suburban Chicago. But I grew up to be an inveterate traveler and spent the holiday in many places—one of the best was the historic, colorful Belgian city of Bruges.

Several years ago I was serving an internship at the US Embassy in London, and received a four-day weekend as per Federal law. I packed a bag, recruited a friend, and took advantage of the holiday to visit one of my favorite Northern European locations.

Bruges is a lovely little time capsule, a prosperous medieval port city that saw its fortunes vanish when its waterway silted up. The city’s centuries of slumber had an unintended boon for twenty-first century travelers: its cathedral, cobbled alleyways, picture-book canals, and magnificent Market Square survive to thrill romantics and history buffs alike.

My friend, a fellow American who was visiting me from back home, had never heard of the place. This presented another great opportunity I relished: playing tour guide in Europe. At first she was skeptical of spending the holiday in an unfamiliar city, but seemed to warm to the idea when told that Belgium makes the finest chocolate and beer in the galaxy (in fact, Belgium has almost as many beers as there are days in the year).

Having won her interest, we met up in London on a Wednesday, flew to the Brussels and caught a train to Bruges. A steady rain greeted us as we settled into a little bed and breakfast I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. I promised my exhausted buddy that tomorrow would be a lot more fun.

Thanksgiving was spent showing my hometown friend some of Bruges’ charms, like the bell tower that has overlooked the Market Square since 1300, the gorgeous Crusader-financed Basilica of the Holy Blood, and the terrific Gruuthuse Museum housed in the former home of a wealthy medieval merchant. Under a chilly drizzle, we munched on hot, greasy French fries from a stand in the Market Square and then checked out the Michelangelo kept in a nearby church. A major part of the experience was, of course, browsing the numerous chocolate shops lining the alleyways just off the colorful square.

Our thanksgiving feast was in a little Italian café off a cobbled lane, where a pizza was washed down with a delicious locally-crafted strawberry-flavored beer (Frambozen). Dark chocolate, freshly made by a nearby confectioner’s, was the dessert. After introducing my pal to a few more fine Belgian beers (Trappist monk-brewed dark, and a white beer called Dentergems), a post-feast stroll around the backstreets capped off the night. The following Sunday I returned to London while my friend flew home to Chicago with a bagful of pralines, a hangover, and a few good stories.

I’ve had many interesting Thanksgiving experiences before and since, but my holiday spent in the historic, idyllic little Belgian city still brings a smile. Stuffing and family is great, but I really miss that beer.