The scent of manure from the neighboring farm fields was so thick you could taste it as we pulled in to the CenterParcs resort village in De Haan, Belgium on Friday night. Fortunately, the olfactory malefaction passed by midday Saturday and was quickly forgotten as we enjoyed five relaxing days with little planned but exploring the resort and nearby beach on the North Sea, visiting Amsterdam for a day and meeting up with friends one last time.

Our roomy, three-bedroom cabin had a kitchen, two-stories and plenty of room to spread out; a welcome layout for the last accommodations we would call home on our trip. The park had a general store (with a great beer selection) and was packed with activities including an indoor kids' play area, a swim park with a wave pool and waterslides, an indoor sport park where we played a family round of badminton, a bowling alley (didn't), mini-golf (did) and more. Needless to say, along with Disneyland (Day 38) and our afternoon at Stardust park in Brussels (Day 31), DeHaan ranked as one of the kids' favorite destinations.

The town is quiet, picturesque and very European; there are flowers in every window box on the police station and signs exclusively in Dutch in the laundromats. We were pleased to once again find ourselves at a charming refuge favored by locals, even if English is an afterthought in De Haan. The only way I found out that one business was a small grocery/convenience store was by walking up and opening the door. Because their sign wasn't a helpful indicator:

After a breakfast buffet and our first visit to the water slides on Saturday morning, our friends Frank and Carlos made the drive up from Brussels with Frank's mom to explore the area with us.

While we endured some heavy winds and really the first plan-altering precipitation of our entire trip, we still rode a tram to the center of town and the kids hit a trampoline carnival ride before the rains drove us back to the resort. Fortunately our first order of business had been a stroll to the seashore to feel the waves, collect some shells and poke a dead jellyfish with a stick.

After a quiet day around the resort on Sunday, we made our last major sightseeing trip on Monday - Betsy's birthday! - when we got up early to make the three-hour drive to Amsterdam. The Netherlands struck us as being very clean, well-organized and healthy - at least the rest stops, vehicles and roadside fields, buildings and waterways we saw. We arrived in the city shortly before lunchtime and, after hunting down a parking spot, set out on foot to wander along the canals and see what we could find.

Amsterdam, the fourth world capital of our trip, was busy and alive on the crisp, sunny day of our visit. People were milling about everywhere, causing Betsy to wonder, "Don't any of these people have jobs?!"

She left me to ponder that at one of the local coffeehouses while she and the kids took a little walk. It was some of the best coffee I've ever had (not pictured).


The most watery city in the world gets its distinction from three main canals, dug in the 17th century, that form concentric belts through the old downtown, which boasts 1550 monumental buildings. We enjoyed weaving our way along the numerous connecting canals and seeing the houseboats and old crooked warehouses, many of them refurbished as cool living spaces.   

Since we decided to forego the art scene and save the Van Gogh and Rembrandt museums for another time, the one place we really wanted to see was the Anne Frank House. A moderate queue and a look at some information in the museum's shop gave us time for a family history lesson on Anne Frank and WWII.

We saw the warehouse for Mr. Frank's former business and where the family's hideout was built in a secret rear annex. We walked through the offices where the refugees' only support worked by day and where Anne, her sister Margot, mother Edith, father Otto and four others would occasionally sneak by night. We walked past a reconstruction of the bookcase that hid the access panel to the annex and walked up the stairs to the tiny living space shared by eight people from July 6, 1942 until August 4, 1944 when the German police stormed in after an unidentified informer exposed them. It was difficult to place one's self in their shoes; terrified to cough, sneeze, flush a toilet or crack a window shade lest they be discovered and thrown to the Nazi devils; bored, trapped, alone, cramped and fearful for day upon day. While the annex is completely unfurnished, the walls and layout have remain unchanged and walking through Anne's bedroom with the pictures she pasted up on the wall still intact, seeing the map where Otto Frank marked the advancing Allied forces and the section of wallpaper where Anne and Margot's height was marked during their stay was very moving. The original diaries, handwritten in Dutch and spanning several books were also on display.

Anne Frank was important not only because she chronicled a chapter of world history from a viewpoint that usually goes unheard but more so because of the life, love, hopes and dreams for mankind she expressed so beautifully in spite of her dire circumstances.

No photography was allowed inside but here are the kids in front of the exterior of the warehouse right after our visit.

Next we took a relaxing one-hour boat tour through the canals and enjoyed learning about the grand buildings, beguiling houseboats and intricate bridges lining the channels.

Betsy slipped on her fabulous birthday gift, the shimmering Swarovski ring purchased that day from their Amsterdam retail store.

At one point, we consulted our GPS to determine which route we should take next to explore the city and decided on a corner that we hadn't reached previously. Three blocks later, we failed to notice the crimson light bulbs above the windows but we did see the woman in the window who was, as Vaughn put it, "pretending to be a mannequin but with no shirt on." As she pulled the curtain closed with a frown, we made a u-turn and made our way back towards more familiar territory.

Following our day in Amsterdam, two lazy days back at the De Haan resort with nowhere to be and nothing to do closed out our vacation. We bought a shovel for the beach and had a blast digging in the sand and leaping in the waves.

On Wednesday evening we enjoyed a visit from our friends Max, Els and daughters Jill and Anna -Paulina. A pizza feast, lots of laughs, and hopes for many reunions in the future preceded this beautiful sunset on the beach.  

After the two-hour dinner, the kids were eager to stretch their legs as we began to stroll around De Haan. Shortly after leaving the restaurant at dusk, all three kids ran around a corner and were clotheslined by an almost-invisible cable strung up between pillars at the bike-rental store shown in the second picture of this post. Xander took the worst of it on his neck and the height of the wire was evident as Vaughn got it on the nose and Quinn on her right eyebrow. 

We went to the floral police station and made a report so I'm sure the bike store got a stern reprimand in the morning. Of course, it took an some Americans sprinting blindly around a dark corner in an unfamiliar town to point out the problem, but we did our civic duty and - finally! - a Belgian cop wrote my information down in his little book. 

Thursday morning started early as we made our way to the airport first thing in the morning. One of our strategies was to put a packed suitcase inside an otherwise empty larger suitcase to make our return trip a little easier. It was a great idea that made packing easy but cramming everything into our little Skoda Octavia a lot like playing Tetris. Here's us pulling everything out upon arrival at the Brussels airport for our flight back home. Vaughn has the print we bought during our visit to Monet's house and gardens.

This is the last installment of the Hughes on the Loose: Europe 2012 blog after 27 posts covering 44 days. We've had over 1900 page views and we're delighted our friends and family could share the true joys of Europe right along with us:

Our trip ended with our return to the Twin Cities on August 30. We will have to find a local resource for some of the thirty new varieties of beer we've sampled during our travels (several of them way more than once). The true highlights were our stays in London (during the Olympics!) and Paris, living in Brussels, the day trips to Amsterdam, Dinant and Monschau, seeing all the castles, walls, cathedrals, palaces and boobs, just being together and the countless little joys and discoveries that happened every day. 

goodbye laundromats, 
hello dishwasher

goodbye museums, 
hello classrooms

goodbye pigeons, 
hello piano

goodbye great beer everywhere, 
hello all English all the time

goodbye Bob l'eponge,
hello NFL

goodbye subways, 
hello Hopkins

goodbye cigarette butts, 
hello water fountains and trash cans

goodbye suitcases, 
hello baseball gloves

goodbye new friends, 
hello home

 Ha ha ha ha ha! Weiner Circus!


Saturday's trip to Monschau, Germany was well worth the ninety-minute drive east over the border that marked the third different country in which the kids have set foot in their short yet remarkable lives. It was a thrill for me to finally get to use the language I studied in school; everyone was a little surprised, including myself, that I was able to give the non-English-speaking waiter a detailed order entirely auf Deutsch and that we received everything we desired! After a deliciously efficient German meal, we set out to explore the town by following the waterway coursing through and underneath the streets.  

Monschau, the "charming gem of the Eifel region," is nestled in a narrow valley of the Rur River. Mentioned in historical texts as early as 1198, it is easy to imagine settlers choosing this location for its beautiful natural resources in the fertile and defensible valley. Today it's a tourist and health-resort destination for Europeans of every nationality.

The town center has many preserved half-timbered houses and the narrow streets have remained unchanged for 300 years. On the heights above the city, Burg Monschau serves as a reminder of the past and a site for modern theatrical and musical performances.

We were thrilled to be among just a handful of tourists exploring the castle that afternoon. Like several sites we've visited, there wasn't a warning sign, security guard or admission desk to be found; we were free to explore the entire grounds independently and make our own history. While I found out later that the fortress was used as a seat for dukes starting in 1433 and that Holy Roman Emperor Charles V besieged it in 1543, none of that mattered as we roamed the raised walls and narrow stone staircases and peeked out of the archers' windows overlooking the valley below.

We're continually surprised and pleased at the lack of excessive safety measures at places like these. Apparently proprieters of sites such haven't been sued enough to decide it would just be easier to lock the gates and restrict access.

After some ice cream bars on the way out of town, we took up an invitation to meet our friends Carlos and Frank for dinner at the sprawling, kid-friendly recreation area in St. Truiden called the Speelhof, or Play Farm. Once a mid-1800's site for aristocratic socializing, it is now a destination for locals to jog through the manicured trails or let loose on a whole bunch of playground equipment that has long since been outlawed in the U.S.

On Sunday morning, we met Betsy's friend Els, her husband Max and their lovely daughters Jill (7) and Anna-Paulina (3) for breakfast in Brussels before caravanning to Luxembourg City for the day as the kids put their fourth pin in the world map. Although the girls speak Russian and Dutch but no English, Quinn became fast friends with both and was eager to ride with them on the two-and-a-half-hour drive southeast into the 20th smallest of the 194 independent countries in the world. 

Bordered by France, Belgium and Germany, Luxembourg is often overlooked as tourist destination but is a true gem. The entire country, which is mentioned in texts as early as 963, is just 999 square miles in size - smaller than the state of Rhode Island (1,545).

Luxembourg has the second highest GDP per capita in the world and it shows in everything from the cleanliness of the streets, the ubiquitous landscaping, the way the carefully-planned modern construction matches the restored infrastructure and the refreshing lack of smokers. The relatively small royal palace is in the center of picture below.

All the tours were sold out for the day so the kids and I hope to return by train one day soon to get a look inside and to visit the subterranean network of catacombs built into the cliffs that once served as defensive passageways.

The capital, Luxembourg City, is situated in a lush and brilliantly-fortified valley at the confluence of the Alzette and Petrusse Rivers and provides the most comprehensive glimpse we've had at an ancient city's defensive walls. Check out the wooden portcullis still ready to be lowered by rope to prevent marauders from entering the city by way of the river.

Max went to graduate school in the city for several months and served as our guide, directing us on a tour that took us over 75% of the downtown historical area in just a single day. There were stunning panoramas and amazing photo opportunities at every turn as we made our way from one side of the city to the other by winding up and down the city walls.

We ended up having long lunch at a British pub where we enjoyed the second half of the women's Olympic marathon before wandering through a street art fair where this organ grinder was plying his trade.

After yet another ice cream purchase (and a Grand Marnier crepe for me), the kids were entranced by this gilded street performer.

Later, we made a stop at a picturesque little park to play several rounds of multilingual hide-and-seek during which all the adults got involved.

It was a much-needed diversion for me in particular as my beloved TCMABL Twins were just getting game-one of their (our) victorious week-eleven double-header sweep underway as they (we) reclaimed first place with just two regular-season games to go. (Keep it up, guys!)

Our route back to the car took us by a historical site of great significance. The building below served as Gestapo headquarters during the Nazi occupation of Luxembourg from 1940-1944.

It was just down the street from the current Romanian Embassy and surrounded by several quaint villas on a tree-lined street overlooking the river. As Max and I passed by and contemplated the site, he asked me, "Can you imagine the two of us walking down this street seventy years ago?" Indeed, my Russian friend and I would both have been shot on sight instead of strolling casually past this building, snapping photos with our wives and children. The plaque at lower left, by my rough translation, reminded people "when you pass here, thank the patriots who fought the Nazi terror of this house for freedom in our homeland." How fortunate we are to enjoy the liberties and conventions of daily life thanks to the sacrifices of our predecessors.


As I write this on Monday evening, the kids and I have had another lazy beginning to our week...a load of laundry, a stack of worksheets, plenty of Olympic coverage on the TV and an afternoon visit to the cinema for Ice Age 4 (as lame as that franchise is in English it was even more difficult to sit through in French). In addition to the BBC and Belgian Olympic coverage, we have also found the French and Netherlandish channels, affording us a unique glimpse into the European view of the Olympics. While many people complain that NBC covers only American athletes and stories, I can tell you that the grass is not greener on the other side. Studio hosts and live look-ins on every channel unavoidably focus on events and athletes of national interest and we feel we've enjoyed even less exposure to stories of global interest. Trust me, even though we get everything live by being in this time zone, the wider coverage and production value that U.S. viewers have access to are definitely better than what we are seeing. I should, however, eat my previous words and acknowledge that Team GB has vaulted from 21st to third in the overall medal standings. Still, we plan on making fools of ourselves at whatever events we can attend this coming weekend in London with our Stars and Stripes and fist-pumping chants of "USA! USA! USA!" whenever possible.  


Today we successfully used a Metro day pass, taking three different jaunts and only hopping on one wrong train!  

Thanks to Betsy's French and some helpful passers-by, our first train took us to the far north side of the main loop where we walked one short block to the Canal of Brussels and the tenth edition of the city's temporary summer "beach." 

There were no swimming opportunities but plenty of sand and a few other kid-friendly activity areas. The best features were the international food and drink stands all the way up and down the strip. That day, however, we chose to pack our usual lunch of french bread, ham and cheese so we mostly just enjoyed the smells...except for the mojito I sipped on while the kids frolicked in the sand.

After our second foray underground, we emerged at the Botanical Gardens of Brussels. The six-hectacre gardens, originally opened in 1829 to great fanfare, includes a central domed rotunda and numerous sculptures which were added in the late 1890's. 

In 1938 most of the botanical resources were removed to the National Botanic Garden of Belgium on the grounds of Bouchout Castle just north of the city - a spot we hope to visit soon. The original site we saw Wednesday now stands as a cultural center while the historical statues and much of the garden is still intact.

We found the building, fountains and walkways quite run down but one did get a sense of what a gathering place the garden must have been in its heyday. The trees, hedges and flowers were mostly well maintained and there was still a cafe in the rotunda serving food and drinks (of course) as well as a museum displaying historical photographs.

We stayed aboveground to walk a few blocks south to what appeared to be a very grand cathedral on our map of Brussels and passed by a striking monument known as the Congress Column. The monument, completed in 1859, memorializes several different stages of Belgian history from the statue of King Leopold I atop the column to the tomb of the unknown soldiers of the World Wars at the base. It also commemorates the founding of Belgium in 1830 and the statues at the foot of the structure symbolize the various liberties guaranteed under the country's constitution.

We weren't disappointed as we turned the corner and first saw La Cathedrale des Saints Michel-et-Gudule. Of all of the places of worship we've visited thus far, this was the most awe-inspiring.

The stations of the cross were sculptures carved into alcoves along the outer walls, twelve of the columns lining the main aisle of the sanctuary were adorned with large statues of the apostles, the woodwork on the pulpits and confessionals were remarkably intricate and the modern pipe organ soared up to the ceiling. The cathedral in its current form was built between 1226 and 1276 and the facade was completed in the mid-fifteenth century.

The site is even older, however, as a chapel dedicated to St. Michael was built here as early as the 9th century. Visitors can walk underneath the main floor to see the foundations of the church built around 1047 that replaced the first one. You can touch the actual walls at ground-level from Romanesque times and see graffiti that was scratched into the stone hundreds of years ago. The picture below was on a display underground and shows how they excavated the original site. The two squares at lower left were crypts that are still open for viewing and bones were visible inside them.

We made it home despite getting on the wrong subway line for our last leg of the journey. I realized it quickly so we switched trains and got to the flat in time for the evening Olympic coverage. Betsy enjoyed a special night out when she and her good friend from work, Els Dedobeleer, shared a wonderful meal at Cook and Book. Their evening concluded with an elegant tea serving and a photo-bomber.

We brought along plenty of art supplies and the kids have enjoyed expressing their excitement about their adventures on paper. Below are Quinn's rendition of the gargantuan Palace of Justice and Vaughn's map of one our most frequently-travelled routes through the city.  

A few new thoughts and observations about living here...

Some Europeans, upon visiting the U.S., comment that Americans are so friendly. Well it's not that we're necessarily friendlier, it's just that we acknowledge one another in public. I'm used to passing by someone or sharing an elevator and exchanging a smile or a nod of the head. Here, I notice that if I do happen to make eye contact with someone, their countenance typically doesn't change from a distracted frown. It's not a big deal, but perhaps as a parent who's usually accompanied by three energetic youngsters I suppose I've become accustomed to a little more geniality. I'll just keep smiling and saying hello to people and maybe it'll rub off.

I've been struggling to decipher the worn-out pictograms on our combination oven/microwave appliance in our flat. I was unable to find any use guides online so I sought the help of our landlord. A day later, he was kind enough to send over a Dutch. Unfortunately, I'm still not entirely certain how to properly use the bedeiningspaneel for regelmatig schoonmaken but at least I can make things hot.

We've learned that every time we leave the flat, we'd each better have two things; a full bottle of water and an empty bladder. Water fountains are almost nowhere to be seen and you have to pay to use the toilet just about anywhere you go. Unless, of course, you're male and able to let go in public at one of the open urinal stands we've come across from time to time.

Finally, it had been way too long since we came across some statuesque mammaries so we were delighted to find this young colossal couple in a nude embrace outside a financial building near the Botanical Gardens.