Picture of brussels1 On Saturday morning, our fourth day in the Academie Hotel, we finally learned how to open the window just before we checked out. Oh well. Before leaving we stopped for a freshly baked baguette with ham, cheese, and butter and have been craving another one ever since. We left Brugge and headed west towards Brussels. On the way we managed to get gas after about 20 minutes with the help of every employee and passerby at the station. Our arrival in Brussels was surprisingly smooth (in retrospect), and we quickly found the vicinity of the Grand Place, followed signs to the parking garage and parked. The Grand Place (shown here and below) is the old central square of Brussels, surrounded by medieval guild halls and well, to be honest, not very impressive compared to Brugge.

Picture of brussels2 We wandered around the neighborhoods surrounding the Grand Place for perhaps an hour, but we really just weren't impressed and anxious to get back to France we headed back for the car. We stopped for lunch in a Greek ethnic neighborhood on the way and had excellent Greek food while listening to Greek rock music. This, unfortunately, was the highlight of our visit to Brussels. Back at the car, we managed to hold up the entire traffic system by being unable to use the parking garage. Apparently, you have to go to a little machine and pay first, then you can exit. If you try to exit first, you simply have to leave your car blocking the exit and go back to the little machine, which despite advertising instructions in four languages was impossible to use. Eventually, with enough angry honking, the garage manager came over and used the machine for us. Our troubles had only just begun though. Leaving Brussels was no easy matter. Rather than using signs indicating directions, road names, or cities in the direction the road travels, Brussels decided to draw pentagons and use little yellow dots to show where on the pentagons you are. Brussels has an inner and outer loop of roads, both of which approximate pentagons. But assuming you can even follow the loop roads themselves, deciphering a pentagon with dots on it is not for the novice driver. We did get to see some of the sites of Brussels, like the European Union headquarters, and the Atomium, both by accident as we finally left Brussels to the north, heading towards the Netherlands. To make things more difficult, all the roads we wanted to turn around on were closed for construction. Finally, we did turn around, approached Brussels again, and managed to sneak by on far outer roads. Phew. We drove through southern Belgium into the Ardennes region of France.

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Picture of reims_mall After a couple hours driving though small towns in the forest, we emerged into the rolling hills that make up Champagne. Reims is the capital of Champagne-Ardennes and is a fairly industrial city, having been almost completely rebuilt after World War II. Our hotel turned out to be fronting a huge pedestrian mall which runs through most of downtown. The hotel itself surrounded a courtyard New Orleans-style, and you'd never know that you were right in the middle of Reims' nightlife. We arrived just a little before 6 PM, which was when the Cathedral of Reims closed, so we hurried over to see it first thing.

Picture of reims_cath Reims' Cathedral has more historical interest than either Amiens, or Notre Dame de Paris. It was the site of the coronation of every French King (from Clovis in 496 to Charles X in 1825) and notably the coronation of Charles VII in the presence of Joan of Arc. Perhaps the most unique aspects of Reims compared to the other gothic cathedrals we had visited are its windows. They are still stained glass but instead of being the original glass there's quite a variety in both age and theme. Behind the altar are several huge windows done by Marc Chagall earlier this century, and along one side are windows depicting the various stages in the harvest of grapes and the production of Champagne. There is also a museum connected to the Cathedral which contains exhibits pertaining to the coronation ceremonies of kings for the past 1500 years, but unfortunately it was already closed when we arrived. On the way back towards the hotel, we stopped at a Champagne store. It looked roughly like a book store except stocked with rows upon rows of bottles. Being the champagne experts we are, we declined the help offered by the sales clerk, and instead selected two bottles with nice labels. Since I'm writing this some time after our return, I can assure you we picked well.

Picture of reims_door This view is looking up at the central door to the cathedral. After returning to our hotel, it was time for dinner and we selected a very crowded pizza restaurant next door. Yes pizza, though it was a bit different than your run of the mill American pizza parlor. Melanie had Pizza Ardennaise, with white asparagus (a specialty of the region), artichoke hearts, and a garlic cheese sauce. David's pizza had potatoes, a prosciutto-like ham, and a sauce similar to Hollandaise. Oh yes, we also had a bottle of the house champagne. We were given a quick lecture on it in French, but I failed to follow along. The food and the champagne were excellent.

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