Sunday, July 29, 2007

Beyond Epcot

Last weekend, Paul and I left the kids in my mother and aunt's very capable hands and ventured off for an adults-only trip to Bruges. Our fabulous mini-holiday included exploring the picturesque Belgian city on bicycles, taking frequent refreshment breaks at quaint local watering holes, dining in style at a Michelin-starred restaurant and sleeping so late that we very nearly missed the exquisite champagne breakfast offered by our luxury hotel. In other words, we went out of our way to enjoy the kind of trip that we never, ever could have considered with our kids in tow. We had nearly forgotten how much fun it can be to travel in style, given how accustomed we have become to searching for kiddie menus and proximity to playgrounds, and we enjoyed our little sojourn into our pre-parenthood lifestyle immensely.

Paul consults the map, eager to locate our next beer stop

As much as we appreciated the time to vacation as adults, and as beautiful as Bruges was, there was something about the area which I found a little unsettling. I finally pinpointed the source of my complaint on our second day there as I watched the world go by from my vantage point in an outdoor cafe; there wasn't a single person walking by who not carrying a guidebook. Bruges is beautiful, yes (though in an "old world Europe" way that was starting to feel a little too familiar, coming as this trip did on the heels of our visit to Prague), but it's so touristy that there seems to be little in the way of real life there. The town has what I call the "Epcot Factor" -- it's completely darling, but nearly entirely devoid of anything not aimed directly at visitors -- so much so that it might as well be sitting in the middle of Orlando's Epcot Center rather than the Belgian countryside. Lots to see, lots to do, and every bit of it manufactured for our enjoyment and pleasure. I can't deny that the effect is lovely, but the artifice is a bit... well, artificial.

Check out those charming, quaint... tourists

Tomorrow, we'll be setting off on a week-long trip to Stockholm. When we tell people that we're visiting Sweden on our summer vacation, they tend to assume that we're from the area, or at least have family or friends to visit there. That's not the case. We chose Sweden for our next destination simply because we expect it to look nothing like any of the other European cities we've visited thus far in our travels, and we're ready for a change of pace. We're looking forward to a sparkling clean city featuring an eclectic mixture of modern and ancient, to pickled fish (OK, maybe not so much the pickled fish), to crisp lines and sparse decorations and to lots and lots of water surrounding us.

Having polished off the last of the Pippi books at breakfast the other day, Julia can't wait to visit Junbacken. Evan's looking forward to riding the ferries out to islands in the archipelago. We'll continue our tour of European royal residences at the Kungliga Slottet and we'll get a sense of maritime history at the Vasamuseet and an overview of Swedish culture at Skansen, all of which I'm genuinely excited about. But in addition to the obviously appealing tourist attractions of Stockholm, what I'm really hoping is that we'll also get to know the city itself a bit. As we get more and more travel under our belts, I find that I'm yearning for more than another Epcot experience. In between all of Stockholm's "must sees," I'm hoping that we'll gain at least a small sense during our visit of what everyday life is like there. Too much to ask in a week's vacation? I'll let you know next week.