Saturday, October 31, 2009

The New LeBlanc

Last Sunday we welcomed a new little guy into our family: Xavier Augustus. Life is still pretty chaotic right now, but we are loving our time adapting to our new family life.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

La Vendange

On Sunday, Gilles scratched off an item on his ‘things to do while living in France’ list: participate in a grape harvest. A colleague of his is a friend of a family that grows grapes for the local Jurançon wine. They sell their grapes to a cooperative, which then produces the wine. Jurançon is a white wine largely unknown outside of France. It is available as a sweet or dry wine, depending on the grape variety used. The sweet version is a local favourite often served during l’apéritif. When it comes time to harvest the grapes, the more hands the merrier, so Gilles was certainly welcome to join in.

The experience was more than just helping pick grapes. He was deep in the countryside, and his fellow pickers would often switch to the regional dialect, something rarely heard anymore. It is a language that resembles Spanish more than French. And not surprisingly, most of the day’s conversation revolved around food. At this time of year it is all about wild mushrooms: where to pick them, and needing more rain. The afternoon finished with a snack, and of course some sweet Jurançon wine.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Two Years Ago...

Two years ago today, we departed Calgary for a new adventure in France. It's amazing how fast these past two years have flown by. When we were deciding whether to move here, we said we would be perfectly satisfied if our assignment in Pau lasts two years. We figured that would be enough time to get a feel for life in France, and long enough to justify selling most of our belongings in Canada. Now it looks as though we'll be here for another two years, and we are very happy with that; we don't have any desire to leave just yet.

The picture is of us leaving our home in Calgary two years ago.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Foie Gras Farm

During our recent trip in the Dordogne, we visited one of the many foie gras farms in the area. This region is renowned for its foie gras, largely made from goose liver here (most duck foie gras is produced closer to home).

Foie gras translates to fatty liver. It is made by feeding the goose or duck large quantities of corn over a period of several weeks to fatten its liver. The liver is then prepared in several ways for eating. It is a delicacy, and in France an expensive treat enjoyed especially at Christmas-time. The production of foie gras has a bad rap from animal rights activists, that believe the feeding process is cruel. Their claims are not totally without merit, as there are many industrial foie gras plants in the world (notably in China and Romania), which are cruel (feeding tubes permanently tied down the animal’s throat). But the artisanal farms in France, and I assume also those in North America, are run with all the care in the world. I guarantee that the chickens (and their eggs) that you eat were treated much less humanely than the geese we saw.

Now for the interesting process. The farm we saw always has about 900 geese on hand: 300 babies in the warm barn, 300 geese less than six months of age that roam freely in fields, and 300 geese being fed corn to fatten up their livers. Ironically, the 300 free-range geese also spend their days eating. They eat the grass in their field until there is not a blade left. The farm always has several fields growing grass so that the geese can be moved to a new field once they have finished the grass in their current field.

Once it is time to be ‘force’ fed, the geese move into a special area in the barn. They are fed two to three times a day, each feeding lasting about 15 seconds per goose. A tube is inserted into their throat, and corn is released into it until the stomach is full. This feeding process is called la gavage. The same person feeds them every day to ensure that the feeding remains unstressful. They are fed like this for about six weeks, or until their liver is satisfactorily fattened (decided on an individual basis). The goose is then killed, and prepared into a variety of ways (foie gras, cassoulet, rillettes, confit, feathers for down, etc). The only parts not used are the feet and beak.

We were told that the gavage process takes advantage of the natural physiology of geese. They normally binge eat to fatten their livers before heading on their long migration flights. This fattens their livers to provide enough energy for the long journey. The fattening process is reversible: once they stop eating their livers return to normal size.

This farm is 100% family run. They grow the corn to feed the geese, and they make, can, and sell all their products. At the end of the tour we tasted their foie gras and rillettes, both of which were delicious. We bought a variety of products, which our December guests will be fortunate enough to enjoy with us.

Just a side note on the picture of Gilles with the food. He's eating a huge piece of foie gras mi-cuit (meaning quickly pan seared, it cost a mere 7 euros!), the pie has duck confit in it, the potatoes are cooked in duck fat, and you can pretty much rest assured that there is some kind of duck or goose fat in the beans as well. Surprisingly, the people from this region have the longest life expectancy in France!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Recent Road Trip: Caves, Castles, and Canoeing

We recently set out on a five-day road trip to check out some renowned areas of France that are actually quite close to home. The first region, the Dordogne or Perigord, is known for its beautiful river, picturesque villages, gastronomy (all things duck and goose, walnuts, truffles, cheese), and prehistoric cave art. Then we headed to the countryside in the Tarn region for a couple of relaxing days at a gastronomic bed and breakfast.

We canoed the Dordogne River, passing the cute villages of La Roque-Gageac, Castelnaud, and Bénac. They are built into the rock cliffs, and each town has a castle dating from the Hundred Years’ War between the French and English. In the picture of me taken at the Castelnaud castle, there are replicas of the catapults that were used during the war. From the river below, the castles look very imposing as they are positioned high up on the rocky cliffs. The two & half hour canoe trip took us five hours! We floated for the first hour, stopped along the shore for a picnic, then stopped in La Roque-Gageac for an ice cream. Not to mention that Gilles did 90% of the paddling.

We visited two caves containing prehistoric art: Lascaux and Font-de-Gaume. The paintings in these caves are at least 15,000 years old. The artists painted mostly animals (horses, buffalo, bulls, reindeer) and symbols. Lascaux is the more famous cave, although the cave shown to visitors today is a replica of the original. After the original cave was discovered in 1940, so many people entered it that their body temperature and things they brought into the cave on their shoes aged the drawings more in twenty years than in the previous 15,000 years. They closed the cave and built a replica that is accurate to within a cm. The second cave we visited is the only cave containing polychromatic drawings open to visitors in the world. The number of daily visitors and group sizes are strictly regulated, so we were very fortunate to be able to get a glimpse of this amazing cave. Little is known of the people that painted these drawings: why did they do it? Why did they only paint animals? How did they create such realistic images in the dark cave, high up on slippery rocks? In all our travels, this is the oldest thing we have ever seen, and it was truly amazing.

In the next blog entry, I will discuss the foie gras farm that we visited. It was a very tasty and educational tour!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tour de France

The famous bike race, the Tour de France, is in full swing, and we were able to catch part of it last Sunday. The race covers about 3,500 km in a little over twenty days. It usually passes through, or near Pau during its legs in the Pyrenees Mountains. This year, day nine of the event ended in a nearby town called Tarbes. We missed our chance to see the Tour de France last year, so figured we should partake this year in case it is our last chance to see it.

We decided to watch the riders pass through another nearby town called Lourdes. We arrived several hours before their scheduled arrival, not knowing what to expect for crowds and road closures. We camped out on a shaded, grassy hill beside the race route, and waited patiently with fans from all over Europe (cycling is big here!).

One nice surprise was the caravan that passes by about 1&1/2 hours before the racers. It is a parade of very modern floats from event sponsors, throwing out treats to the crowds. For many spectators, this is as exciting as watching the riders pass by. There were about thirty different sponsors, each with at least two floats (one for each side of the road).

Finally, the wait was over, and the racers approached…and flew by. They whizzed by so quickly that I could barely get a photo. Needless to say, I was not able to pick Lance Armstrong out of the pack! There were several groups of riders, but within twenty minutes, everyone had passed by. The wait was definitely longer than the main attraction, but it was nevertheless exciting and worth our Sunday afternoon.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Hot Days in the Cities

Last week we spent a few days in Paris and Belgium. The main purpose of our trip was to attend two Dave Matthews Band concerts, but we also managed to fit in some sightseeing and shopping.

It was our first visit to Paris in the summer, and we found it was certainly not the most pleasant time of year to be there. The French love their summer holidays, most taking either the month of July or August off work. During their time off, most Parisieners escape to the coast, and now I know why. During our Paris day, it was 34°C. Our usual favourite Paris activity of walking the streets became suffocating. Pounding the hot pavement, trapped between buildings allowing little airflow, was no longer pleasant. Rarely did a restaurant or store provide relief. Some had air conditioning, but it wasn’t very powerful, and we quickly felt hot again. We found temporary relief in a Starbucks, with an iced drink and moderate air conditioning. After only one day in the city, I found myself wishing that I was making an escape to the coast, or that the band was playing in Siberia.

The next day, we were supposed to take it easy. All we had to do was take a high-speed train to Brussels, check into our hotel, and spend a leisurely few hours in Brussels before traveling to the site of the outdoor festival. The day started off well, we even had a short nap after arriving in Brussels, but things went downhill quickly. We took a very hot train ride from Brussels to Leuven. The cheap commuter trains are not equipped with air conditioning, and often don’t even have windows that open. We then traded in the hot train for an even hotter bus. It was packed with concert-goers, and there was not a drop of air inside. Now I know that I have a much lower heat tolerance in my current state, but the sweat was pouring off everyone on the bus at the end of the thirty minute ride. Once we thought we had reached the destination, we were told that the festival entrance was another 1 km walk away! I mustered every bit of energy I had, and off we went. But once at the entrance, all was not rosy. I will spare the details, but if it hadn’t been for our good luck in stumbling on the medical entrance, we would not have seen the concert.

Thankfully, the concerts were great, so well worth the sweaty effort of getting to them. And on the third day of our trip, we did take it easy. We watched a movie at the cinema, sat on outdoor terraces drinking refreshing beverages (including yummy non-alcoholic Belgian beer), and paid frequent visits to our air-conditioned hotel room. Sorry for the lack of photos. We took some on my cell phone, but can’t figure out how to transfer them to the computer.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Nice is Nice!

Gilles and I spent a few days in the famous French Riviera town of Nice earlier this week. Gilles had a work conference there, so I tagged along and we went a couple of days early to explore the town. Through the conference we stayed at a beach-side hotel in a room with a beautiful view. It was well beyond our usual price range, so we really soaked up the perks.

Nice was much less pretentious than I was expecting. It is quite a large city with an unbelievable amount of tourists from around the world. You hear other languages being spoken just as much as French or English. It definitely has the laid-back feeling of a beach town, with the best strolling of any town we have ever been in. The Boulevard des Anglais is a paved pedestrian/bike road the skirts along the beach for several kilometers. It is really wide, and perfect for strolling, enjoying an ice cream, and taking in the view.

The beaches are surprisingly rocky. Not pebbles, but fairly large rocks. Not exactly comfortable to lay on, but this can be avoided by renting a seat at one of the private beaches. For a reasonable fee, you get a lounge chair, mattress, parasol, towel, and a waiter at your service. This is how we spend last Sunday, lounging with magazines, and going for a dip in the beautiful blue water whenever we felt hot.

During the first afternoon of the conference, the attendees were treated to an afternoon of beach activities. Gilles enjoyed a bird's eye view of the coast during a parachute ride. He opted out of waterskiing and the crazy flying fish ride though, knowing the motion would get the better of him.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Second Visitors: Krakow & Budapest

One day after we said good-bye to the Shwaluks, we flew to Krakow to meet our friends Jen and Dave Jupp. The Jupps had just finished visiting Vienna and Prague, and we joined them for the next leg of their trip: Krakow and Budapest.

The Eastern European countries have had a difficult time in recent history, first at the hand of the Nazis, then under Communism. They have done a remarkable job recovering from those days, and have become excellent tourist destinations. Budapest, for example, suffered severe damage during WWII and after. In the past twenty years they have reconstructed their major buildings and monuments, and now Budapest is a beautiful city, one of the best we have seen.

We visited several museums highlighting the region’s harrowing past. The most impacting, not surprisingly, was our visit to the Auschwitz Concentration Camps. It is an emotionally difficult place to see, but necessary on a trip to Poland. It puts into perspective how incredible that period in history was, and how ruthless the Nazis were.

We visited two museums in Budapest highlighting the Communist period in that country: the House of Terror and Statue Park. The former was pretty somber, while Statue Park was much more fun. It is an outdoor museum containing giant statues that ‘decorated’ Budapest during Communism. They reminded locals of who was in power, but the statues were also meant to empower the local, that is if they were model communist citizens (strong, relentless workers).

Not everything we did was full of gloom and misery; we managed to fit in plenty of fun activities as well. We toured a wonderful pharmacy museum in Krakow. I was sure it was going to be incredibly dull, but it far exceeded my expectations, and kept all four of us entertained. We enjoyed a relaxing few hours at the beautiful Szechenyl baths in Budapest. The locals love their thermal baths, and now I know why. They sure helped the two pregnant ladies’ swollen feet and achy backs. We didn’t go quite as far as join the locals in a game of chess in the pool, but we enjoyed this cultural experience nonetheless.

As for culinary adventures, Gilles and I ate enough perogies to sink a ship while in Krakow. We thoroughly enjoyed the bagel-like products that street vendors sold on every corner in Krakow. We thought we were done with cabbage in Poland, but it managed to find us again in Hungary. Dave and I enjoyed trying pickles and other pickled things in Budapest, that is until Dave received a strange looking plate containing several unidentifiable pickled products. And as always seems to happen in our travels with the Jupps, we were served a dish that was completely unlike what we thought we had ordered (we were expecting savory potato pancakes with sour cream, but got sweet crepes with jam and whipped cream!).

As always, we had a wonderful time traveling with the Jupps…where will our next trip take us?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

First Visitors

We just returned from two weeks of traveling with friends from Calgary. The first couple we spent time with was Trent and Maureen Shwaluk. They visited Portugal and Spain for about two weeks before we picked them up in San Sebastian. They wanted to visit some French wine regions, so we took them to two of our favourite places: St Emilion in the Bordeaux wine region, and Provence.

Our main focus in St Emilion was to visit wine houses, referred to as Chateaux in the Bordeaux region. We got off to a good start by staying at a working Chateau that is also a bed and breakfast, so we didn’t have to stray too far for the first wine tasting. Of all the wine regions we have visited in France, St Emilion is the most welcoming to tourists. The tourist information office has a detailed list of vineyards offering tours, and the wine-makers provide enthusiastic tours. Their pride for their product really shines through. It was a great introduction to French wine for the Shwaluks.

With a car full of wine and luggage, we left St Emilion and headed to Provence. That region is famous for it’s sunny days, and we were not disappointed. It was a nice break from the gloomy days we had in St Emilion. Gilles and I love Provence, and I hope Trent and Maureen saw some of the beauty that makes it so special for us. We visited a few vineyards, did some olive oil tastings, had a picnic with food bought at a market, and visited some of the Roman sites in the region. All in all, a great trip.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Easter Weekend in London

Gilles and I headed to London for the Easter long-weekend. It was our first time in an English country since we were in Canada last summer, and it was a refreshing break. The culture of an anglo-saxon country is very distinct, and being in London was almost like returning home.

One of our biggest goals while there was to get in lots of shopping, and as our Visa will attest, that mission was accomplished! In fact, the shopping in London was better than any other city I have visited. We picked up lots of clothes and books, and some fun English treats that we cannot buy in France: Gilles returned home with Crunchy bars and ten Cadbury cream eggs, I filled my suitcase with six boxes of crackers.

After a day and a half of shopping, we decided it was time to see some of the sights. London is certainly not the prettiest city we have visited, but it does have some great museums, and plenty of fun options for tourists. And the tourists were everywhere. It was the busiest city we have visited, and we almost always felt as though we were surrounded by tourists. We heard other languages being spoken as often as we heard English. Of course, not all the non-English were tourists. London has a huge immigrant population, and non-natives were working everywhere from restaurants, to the museums, to the underground transit system.

One of the best parts about London is the handy writing on the pavement that indicates which way to look when crossing the road. They drive on the opposite side of the road, and this has major implications for walkers. You would not believe how subconscious the act of looking both ways before crossing the road is. But the direction our brains want us to look is the wrong direction in London, setting us up for getting hit. In fact, I am sure that tourist accidents are what prompted the city of London to paint the useful directions on the road: Look Right or Look Left.

We did not see the queen, or visit an English pub, but we did eat Indian (twice), rode the ‘tube’ and rode on a double-decker bus…very London-y activities indeed.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Mushers for a Day

My favourite activity on our northern vacation was dog-sledding. The sled dogs are beautiful and amazing. They live to run, and the colder the better; they function best at temperatures of –10 to –25˚C. Because of this, they get the summers off. The winters are for working and the summers are for grooming and relaxation.

We visited two dog farms. The smaller one had 115 Siberian Huskies. Each dog has a name and their own house. These were the friendliest dogs I have ever seen. This farm was within walking distance from our hotel, and Gilles and I strolled over there one afternoon to meet the dogs. We spent over an hour just petting and playing with them. We were covered in hair and a waxy substance from their fur that helps insulate them, but it was worth it. The second farm we visited had over 300 dogs from all three breeds of sled dogs: Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Huskies, and Alaskan Malamutes.

Our first mushing experience was at the larger farm. Gilles and I had a sled of four dogs, and we took turns being the musher. We were a parade of about five sleds, with the professional at the front setting the direction we were to take. The dogs we used were competition dogs: a cross between a husky and pointer. They were not as pretty or calm as the pure huskies, in fact they were rather crazy! They were clearly designed to race, and as soon as they were harnessed in, all they wanted to do was run. Even with my full weight on the brake, they could make the sled move! I will try and post a video of the dogs going ballistic, waiting to run. We went around a short course, and did we ever fly! We had so much fun that we decided to go on another husky safari the next day.

Our second excursion was at the smaller farm with the dogs that Gilles and I had already met. This time we had six dogs to a sled. This was a much more peaceful ride through the snowy countryside. The dogs were less speedy than the racers, but much stronger with great endurance. The trail we took was not groomed, and the dogs had to run through some pretty deep snow. These dogs understood their job: they ran when it was time to run, and relaxed when it was time for a break. I just loved sitting back, watching their six fluffy tails pointing straight up (apparently a sign they are happy and in no distress) as they hauled us through the snowy woods.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Not Quite a Good Night's Sleep

On our second night in Finland, the hotel we were staying in was overbooked. To free up a room, they asked us if we were interested in spending the night at the nearby ice hotel. The otherwise costly 240 euros/night stay would be free thanks to our flexibility. We thought about it for a little while, but in the end decided that we could not pass up the unusual opportunity.

We were driven to the hotel after supper. I warmed up my feet by the fire before we left hoping to start the night off as warm as possible. The young couple that run the hotel was very welcoming and proud of their endeavour. They showed us around the ice/snow buildings: six large suites, a bar, a chapel, two ice saunas, and two large buildings with numerous small bedrooms. We stayed in one of the small rooms. The mattress sat atop a bed made of ice, and there was a bedside table made of ice. They assured us the temperature inside the bedrooms remains between 0 and –5 ˚C, regardless of the outside temperature. We rationalized that we have spent the night in our tent around 0 ˚C, so it couldn’t be that bad, right?

They also have a large, heated, wooden lodge. This facility is available for use all night long. Among other things it contains bathrooms, a large sauna, fireplaces, and two rooms with beds in case their guests choose to abandon the icy rooms in the middle of the night. They provided us each with a pillow and two sleeping bags: a thin, fleece mummy bag to be placed inside the large, thick mummy bag. They suggested we keep only our base layer on to be in close contact with the sleeping bags.

Once in our room, we undressed as quickly as possible and hopped into the two bags. I kept my gloves, socks, base layer, and toque on the entire night. At first I was nervous of sleeping under a snow roof, but soon forgot about that for another fear: suffocating. It was hard lining up the two face openings of the bags. As soon as I rolled over, one of the bags was always covering my face. We did manage to get a decent sleep. I was not cold, but not really warm either. Our faces were very cold, and there was frosty condensation from our breath covering the sleeping bags. It was much colder than the cold camping experiences of our past. The couple greeted us in the morning with warm juice and certificates for having survived a night in arctic conditions. It was a worthwhile experience, but I was certainly glad the hotel was not overbooked the next night!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

It Looks Like Home!

That is what we said as soon as our bus pulled away from the Rovaniemi airport en route to our hotel. More specifically, it looked just like Northern New Brunswick. Northern Finland is where we spent last week, frolicking in the snow. The social committee at Gilles’ work has a travel agency that offers about a dozen trips a year at competitive prices. When we saw the trip to Finland, we jumped on it. We were surprised that we missed winter last year, so thought a week in the great white north would fill the void. People in the South of France think this winter season has been great because the Pyrenees actually have snow, but if they think that wet, slushy snow, zero degree temperatures, and over-crowded ski hills is winter, they don’t know what they are missing.

So we retrieved our winter clothing out of storage, and headed north: Arctic Circle north. We were part of a group of 26 people: 24 French, and 2 Canadians. All meals and activities were planned. We took part in many different cold-weather activities, several for the first time. We went cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and on several skidoo trips. We went ice fishing, but did not catch anything. We fed, were pulled on a sled by, and ate reindeer. They are really small and slow (not sure what Santa was thinking!). We spent a night in an ice hotel and went on two dog-sled outings (more on those later). And, we visited Santa’s house. According to Europeans, he lives at the Arctic Circle near Rovaniemi, not the North Pole. But I am not sure that they can be trusted because only Gilles and I could name his reindeer. Regardless, Santa has his own post office there and charges 25 euros to have a picture taken with him. He is probably using the funds to upgrade to a dog-sled team (much faster than reindeer!).

It was funny traveling with the French. They marveled at things that are different than in France: double-paned glass in windows, houses made of wood, no shutters on windows. They were amazed with my winter boots because of their rubber exterior. And the food just didn’t quite cut it. I don’t think they could travel anywhere in the world and be truly happy with the food. The stewed rhubarb wasn’t cooked enough, we were served too much warm berry juice, and I overheard the following complaints: “they are serving potatoes again!”, “they call this bread?”, and “I can’t believe they are serving cucumbers and tomatoes!”. The latter statement shows how much the French are seasonal eaters. They do not eat cucumbers and tomatoes in the winter because they do not grow then. They are not used to northern climates with a growing season of two-three months, requiring that most fruit and vegetables are imported the majority of the year.

We did have a wonderful time in Finland. I will write more about the ice hotel and dog-sledding experiences later.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Late Nights in Madrid

Last weekend we drove to Madrid to meet our friends Debbie and TJ Bunka. They were in Spain’s capital for three days before heading to the Canary Islands. For us it was a great chance see friends and check out Madrid. The six hour drive down was oddly through a snowy landscape. Europe was just recovering from an uncharacteristic cold snap that dropped snow on unlikely areas, including the arid Spain countryside (and in our backyard in Pau).

Madrid is a lively city that doesn’t seem to sleep, and we did our best to take part in the liveliness. On our first night we spent our time in three tapas bars, enjoying the cheap wine, delicious tapas, and each other’s company. Somewhere between the jamón and the cheesy eighties music we lost track of time, and the next thing we knew it was 3 AM. We hauled our butts off to bed while the Spaniards ordered another round.

The next day we toured the extensive Prado museum and walked around the historical areas of Madrid. More time was dedicated to jamón, Spain’s best contribution to the culinary world. These cured ham legs are a national obsession. There are a variety of types ranging in price and flavour, the most expensive being a little black pig that is fed acorns. The meat is delicately shaved by hand with a knife, and oozes greasy goodness. We enjoyed several helpings, including some on the street immediately after buying a few slices at the Museo del Jamón.

That night we were much more disciplined and made it back to the hotel at 1 AM. We could easily have stayed out later, but the Bunkas had an 8 AM flight the next day and we had a long drive ahead of us. When Debbie and TJ boarded the shuttle for the airport at 6 AM Sunday morning, they said the streets were packed with partyers straggling home. Those crazy Spaniards!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

In Flanders' Fields

On our last day in Belgium we rented a car and visited several World War I monuments and cemeteries. Of all the historical events that were taught in school, I seem to remember what I learned of WWI the most. I am not sure why that is; perhaps it was a particularly interesting subject to me, or maybe Mr Cool, my junior high social studies teacher, taught that subject with extra enthusiasm. Whatever the reason, just hearing the names Vimy Ridge, Ypres, and Passchendaele conjures up images of battles, trenches, and muddy fields. So it was a bit surreal driving through Flanders’ fields in our little VW Polo, passing by a commonwealth cemetery every few kilometers. It was a cold day with a thick ice fog hovering over the fields, limiting our visibility. The fog added an eerie element to our day. As we walked through the Tyne Cot cemetery, the resting place of almost 12,000 soldiers, we could not see the edges of the cemetery. It seemed as though the graves went on forever.

As we crossed into France and headed toward Vimy Ridge, the fog lifted and revealed a beautiful blue sky. We were fortunate because the Canadian monument at Vimy is very large and we would not have been able to appreciate it in the fog. The recently restored monument is the most impressive of the WWI monuments. The fields surrounding the site are off-limits to tourists because of the undetonated ammunition below ground (just as I remember learning in grade 8). The fields, originally flat, are now a series of rolling hills created by the bombs that attacked the area. I would love to return during the summer when they provide guided tours of some of the original trenches.

We crossed back into Belgium to track down a few additional Canadian monuments. In the tiny town of Passendale, we took Canadalaan to the small monument that commemorates Canada’s involvement in the battle to capture the Passchendaele ridge. We then headed to the solemn monument at St Juliaan that marks where Canadians withstood the first German gas attacks.

We finished our tour in Ypres, hoping to visit the In Flanders’ Field Museum, but got there too late. It was interesting to see the town, though, as it was completely annihilated during the war. It has since been rebuilt, and is a large, lively town. To show their appreciation to the people of the commonwealth for their sacrifice, the town flies several British flags and holds a short remembrance ceremony every day.

It was a memorable and patriotic day, ending a great trip to Belgium.