This is the home for tour updates, pictures, and video from our European travels! Look for additional updates (and many more pictures) on our Facebook Page.
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We met at the airport at 4am for a flight from Phoenix to JFK. The six hour flight was uneventful. We then had a five hour layover in New York. Most in the group ate lunch and several walked laps around the terminal. Finally, it was time to board the second leg of the trip to Brussels. The flight took off pretty much on time and included dinner, breakfast, and a variety of entertainment options. Unfortunately, most people weren’t able to sleep much, if at all, so we arrived into Brussels the next morning very tired, but looking forward to the start of our European adventures.
Is it really Day Two already? Our flight landed around 9am and we breezed through customs, picked up ALL of our bags (small victory!) and met our tour guide, Andreas. You could tell from inside the terminal that it’s unusually hot here with much more humidity than we’re used to. We loaded up the tour bus and went directly into the city center, as the tour planners didn’t want us to rest during the day so we could adjust to our new time zone nine hours ahead. We left the bus at the cathedral where we’re scheduled to sing our first concert tomorrow and walked several blocks into the center of town – a stunning plaza with an eclectic blend of Baroque, Gothic and Louis XIV architecture. While Brussels is the capital of Belgium and the capital of the European Union, the primary focus of the Grand Place is the Town Hall, although it appears more like a castle or cathedral than the seat of local government. We were given nearly two hours for lunch and sightseeing/shopping on our own and met back under the center tower of the Town Hall.
We split into two groups for an hour long walking tour where we saw one of Brussels’ most iconic landmarks, the Mannekin Pis, or little boy peeing into a fountain. The surprisingly small statue was put in place in 1618 or 1619 and has been named “Brussels’ Oldest Citizen”. He’s also frequently dressed in different outfits – today he was dressed as a football (soccer) fan in celebration of the World Cup. Apparently, there is a museum which houses the statue’s original outfits, soon to hit the 1,000 mark. We also saw frequent representations of some of Brussels’ other most famous citizens, Tin Tin and the Smurfs.
The tour wrapped up at the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, one of the very first shopping malls in the world. The groups met back at the bus and we were taken on a two-hour bus tour around the city. Those of us who were able to stay awake had the opportunity to see iconic sights like the Atomium structure, a giant legacy from the 1958 world fair (look closely and you’ll see a Smurf’s face on one of the spheres!), and the royal palace and grounds.
We then went to the hotel and were able to (finally!) check into our rooms and shower and/or nap before our Welcome Dinner in the hotel restaurant. Our first concert is tomorrow. Watch it live or a recording any time afterward here.
We started out the morning at the Muziekinstrumentenmuseum (Musical instrument Museum). We made the best of a timing mix-up and walked across the street to a beautiful park for a group picture – and plenty of selfies – before the museum opened. The museum was interesting – we were able to listen to the sounds of their different instruments via a personal listening device. They had everything from the most primitive drums and whistles to some purely digital instruments.
Following the Musical Instrument Museum, we walked across the street to the Old Masters section of the Art Museum. Again, we were given personal living devices we could hear information about specific pieces, including the artist, time period, summary of the image, style, and summary of the image’s meaning.
After the tour, we drove over to the church where we would be performing and walked down the hill to a quick lunch on our own. We then walked back up the hill to Cathedrale Saints-Michel-et-Gudule for rehearsal and the first concert of the tour (see it here!). We performed in front of a couple hundred people then stepped outside at the cathedral’s request to sing one more song on the steps. After returning to the hotel, dinner was on our own and the group split, going to several different restaurants in the city including an Irish Pub near the hotel and back down to the Grand Place. We have an early start tomorrow, as we go on a quick day trip to Luxembourg.
We got an early start and boarded the bus for the 2.5 hour drive to the tiny country of Luxembourg. The drive through the Belgian countryside was beautiful, with rolling green hills and fields along with the occasional river. Once arriving in Luxembourg City, we were taken into the city center and sent out on our own for lunch. The group split up to enjoy some of the restaurants around the central square – including a McDonald’s – though there were several other choices. The group met up again after lunch for a 2.5 hour walking tour of the city. We first stopped in the cathedral for a couple songs in an informal “pop up” concert. (Watch one song) Then we split into two groups and continued the tour.
The country of Luxembourg is roughly 1/8 the size of Maricopa County and is one of the smallest sovereign states in Europe. It is also a founding member of the EU and NATO and the site of the European Court of Justice, the European Court of Auditors, the Statistical Office of the European Communities (“Eurostat”) and other vital EU components. We saw the royal crypt, the Prime Minister’s residence, monument of the Grand Duchess Charlotte, and explored the Bock Casemates, a fascinating underground fortress. The casemates are a 14-mile long network of tunnels and rooms, capable of providing shelter for thousands of soldiers together with their equipment and their horses. We walked through a partion of the casemates and several brave individuals tackled the “escape route” – an extremely steep and narrow spiral staircase of approximately 150 not-so-uniform steps. We then continued our tour around the capital city, seeing the Grand Duke’s residence and finally ending with a glass of Luxembourgian white wine in a small bistro. We returned to the city center, boarded our bus and returned to Brussels.
The Belgian football (soccer) team played Japan in the World Cup tonight, winning 3-2 in a stunning come-from-behind victory in the final seconds. The city seems to be going crazy right now, even a couple hours after the game ended, with car horns blaring and people still in the streets cheering outside our hotel.
Today was the earliest start yet. The plan was to eat breakfast, check out of the hotel, load the luggage on the bus, and drive to Bruges. While the plan wasn’t perfectly executed, we somehow still managed to arrive in Bruges nearly on time, thanks to our new bus driver, Darren. We met our tour guides immediately, split into three groups, and went to explore the city of Bruges.
Bruges is a beautiful city with medieval buildings, sometimes challenging cobbled streets, and scenic canals. Our tour started walking through the Beguinage, a 13th century monastery for the Benedictine sisters (who still live there now), we continued on past the Church of Our Lady and through the Basilica of the Holy Blood – which claims to have some drops of Christ’s blood, taking pictures on the many bridges over the canals and tripping over uneven cobblestones. We saw the Markt – a plaza in the center of the city housing the massive Belfry of Bruges, a medieval bell tower one could climb (366 steps) for incredible views of the city and surrounding area, and ended up at the Old St. John’s Hospital, an 11th century hospital turned into a medical museum featuring several paintings by Hans Memling. The tour reminded us all how much we appreciate the wonders of modern medicine.
We were then free to have lunch on our own/shop/explore for about an hour. Like Brussels, Bruges has plenty of waffle shops, chocolate shops, and frites (french fries) stands. It is also very proud of its beer and even has a beer museum. When the group came back together after lunch, we took a 30-minute cruise, splitting into two boats to explore the canals of “the Venice of the north”. It was interesting to see Bruges from a different perspective and learn about how vital a role the canal system played throughout the city’s history. It was also interesting to see how low a bridge the boats could navigate under without hitting a passenger’s head!
After the tour, we had more time on our own to explore and shop. Then we boarded the bus again and began the three hour drive to Amsterdam. We saw traditional windmills! We also saw a ton of modern wind turbines. When we finally arrived, we gathered for a group dinner together then split off for the night.
It’s been unusually warm in Belgium (stop laughing friends in Phoenix – it IS hot and there’s humidity), but we’re finally seeing a bit of a cool down – especially tonight. It’s almost chilly!
Happy 4th of July! We are spending the morning in the Hague, the “European capital of peace and justice” home to many different international judicial bodies, such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Our first stop, however, was not at any of these formal institutions – we went to the beach. Scheveningen Beach was mostly shut down for a boat race the preceeding weekend, so we had the opportunity to see, but not walk on, the beach and North Sea. It was essentially an extended restroom break.
After the beach, we drove to the Peace Palace – it was one of the best places to go on our Independence Day. It was beautiful to see such a strong tribute to world peace, including the eternal peace flame and labyrinth with stones representing every nation in front of its gates. There was also a peace tree on the opposite side with wishes for peace written by visitors to the Peace Palace in every language imaginable.
We then went on a bus tour of the Hague, we saw many embassies and ambassadors’ homes as well as the Royal Palace and Madurodam a miniature replica of Dutch landmarks and cities. A walking tour followed the bus tour and we saw more important sights. The Hague was host to an international sand sculpture competition (the U.S. took third with the U.K. sculpture of a tractor winning first. Lunch was on our own – Our guide recommended Indonesian food as one of the most commonly eaten foods in the Hague.
In the afternoon, we visited the town of Delft and the Royal Delft factory store for souvenirs and treats. We learned the difference (especially in price) between the stamped and hand painted pieces and saw Royal Delft everything – even a car!
We returned to the hotel for dinner on our own and free time the rest of the evening. The long days are starting to wear on us and the time change in addition to 2-3 hour long walking tours certainly aren’t helping!
Today was a very long day. We started the day with breakfast at the hotel then boarded the bus to visit the Anne Frank House Museum. The museum preserves the hiding place and tells the stories of of the Frank family and the other four people who hid in the secret annex, as well as the people who hid them. Walking through the museum understandably affects one physically – there is a sober, thought-provoking heaviness that becomes almost overwhelming by the end of the tour.
We had quite a bit of time to recover,however, as the bus wasn’t due back for nearly 30 minutes. We all stood outside and chatted/compared stories and observations before again boarding the bus to Marken, an island with a small,
traditional fishing village we explored then stopped for lunch before boarding a ferry to another small, traditional fishing village called Volendam. The ferry ride was about half an hour and we really enjoyed seeing sailboats pass through the shallow bay dotted with little villages. We had some time in Volendam for shopping, then left to visit some local artisans. We visited the Henri Willig cheese factory and learned how to make traditional Dutch cheeses – then we were allowed to sample most of them. We entered a tasting room (and shop, of course) that had at least two dozen different cheeses, from a young goat cheese to an aged and smoked gouda (which we learned is pronounced HOW-duh). We also visited another shop and watched a gentleman make traditional wooden shoes, first by hand, then with a hundred-year-old machine.
We drove another five minutes or so to Edam, were we had a fantastic group dinner, then walked to St. Nicolaaskerk (one of two, we were surprised to learn – especially since it wasn’t the one we were expecting) for another concert. Watch the concert here. We didn’t get back to the hotel until late – after 10:30. Since the day was so long, our driver had to take a break, so we had to go with a temporary bus driver with a much smaller bus.
We spent the morning on an bus/walking tour of Amsterdam. The tour included visiting a traditional windmill in a park just outside downtown in an park with a large statue of the Dutch artist Rembrandt. We visited the famous Dutch Flower Market, which was mostly souvenirs and tulip bulbs. One of the most interesting parts of the tour was seeing how some of the tall, narrow buildings were leaning significantly – either forward or to the side, against the next house. Apparently, this tilt is quite famous, but very few (if any) of us were aware of it.
Following the tour, we walked to our next concert at the English Reformed Church in Amsterdam. The concert was part of a lunchtime series and can be watched here.
We also had the opportunity to visit the Rijksmuseum in the afternoon. The Rijksmuseum is a large Dutch national museum dedicated to arts and history in Amsterdam from the Middle Ages to today. It features works like Rembrandt’s Night Watch and Van Gogh’s 1887 Self Portrait. We then had the option to visit other museums in the area, including the VanGogh museum or return to the hotel for the evening on our own.
We boarded the bus after breakfast and said goodbye to Amsterdam. We drove nearly all day, stopping every 90 minutes or so for rest stops, to stretch our legs, or to get an ice cream or coffee.The drive from Amsterdam to Hamburg took about seven hours, including stops.
Once we finally arrived, we took a Harbor Cruise to learn more about the city by boat. The harbor was considerably more industrial than anything we’ve seen this trip. We saw a couple cruise ships and some enormous freighters packed with thousands of large shipping containers, as well as ships being built and a handful of yachts. We also got insanely close to some of the ships.
We checked into the hotel and met for a group dinner before going our separate ways for the evening. Unfortunately, most on the trip either have been, are currently, or are getting sick. There is a pretty nasty head cold making its way around our tour bus – not good for a group of singers!
We started our first morning in Hamburg with a church service at Christuskirche Apostelkirche. The choir loft was upstairs in the back of the church and had pretty amazing acoustics. Three songs were included in the service with three more at the end. We also attempted to sing the hymns during service – in German. Some of us were certainly more accurate than others, but it was fun either way! The service was also in German and might have been about baptisms and water.
Following the service, the congregation provided a light lunch buffet with different breads, spreads, some meats and cheeses, fruit, hard boiled eggs, and coffee or tea. It was a very nice gesture and was appreciated by all!
We then drove into the city center for a tour. The tour began at the Hamburg Rathaus (City Hall). We split into three groups and went on three very different tours – we discovered this after comparing notes. One group focused primarily on the Rathaus, one visited the shopping district and malls, and one covered a lot of ground, seeing as many sights as possible. One of the primary highlights among the tours was St. Nikolai (Nicholas)’s Church. Bombings during World War II destroyed most of the church, leaving its crypt and tall, mostly hollow tower. The tower does still contain a large set of carillon bells, ringing every hour and serving both as peace memorial and an important architectural landmark in the city.
After the tours, we had time to explore the city center on our own.
We drove all day. The trip from Hamburg to Copenhagen took about seven hours and included a ferry ride in the middle of the trip crossing the southwestern Baltic Sea between Germany and Denmark. The ferry was more like a smaller cruise ship, with three restaurants and plenty of shopping. The top deck was very windy and cold, but great for photos! The ferry ride only took about 40 minutes, but was one of the highlights of today’s journey.
We arrived into Copenhagen early and had a couple hours of free time before a group dinner together. it’s hard to believe the tour is so close to wrapping up!
We started our last full day in Copenhagen with a bus tour exploring the city. We quickly drove by the iconic colorful buildings lining the canal in Nyhaven, or “New Harbor.” We were able to stop, take pictures, and walk around the waterfront in the Holmen neighborhood, the former grounds of the Royal Naval Base and Dockyards and current home of the new Opera house. We were also able to explore the courtyard of the Amalienborg Palace, home of the Danish royal family, with four nearly identical classical palace buildings around the courtyard.
We then visited one of the most well-known sculptures in the world – the Little Mermaid. There were three large cruise ships docked in Copenhagen, so it was a very popular spot and we weren’t able to stay too long (or to walk down to the rocks to see the statue close up).
We ended our tour at the Rosenborg Castle and Treasury. Unfortunately, due to restrictions at the castle, we were not able to bring any purses or backpacks in on the tour, and we didn’t have a bus anymore where we could store them, so our fantastic tour guide, Andreas, had the unenviable task of watching/protecting ALL of our bags during the hour long tour. Built by Christian IV, Rosenborg Castle was primarily used as a summer palace in the 17th and 18th centuries and now is the home to the the coronation chair of the absolutist kings with the three silver lions and the Treasury displays the Crown Jewels and Danish Crown Regalia.
We had much of the afternoon on own to explore more of the city, walk around Tivoli Gardens, or rest before the final concert of the tour.
For the first time this tour, we were able to dress for the concert at the hotel before boarding the bus to Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Saviour’s Church) for final concert. The church itself was another Copenhagen landmark with its famous helix spire featuring an external winding staircase that can be climbed to the top… if you’re very, very brave! Some of the non-singers on the tour used the warm-up time before the concert to climb the 400 steps to the top of the spire. Watch the concert here.
After the concert, we went straight to the restaurant Cassiopeia for a (very!) late farewell dinner. The restaurant was located inside the Copenhagen Planetarium and was the perfect setting for our last night in Europe.
It’s hard to believe that our tour is over! We loaded up the bus (making sure to avoid bicycles in the cycle-path between the hotel and where the bus could park), said our goodbyes and drove to the airport. Despite several technical issues with the automated check-in kiosks, we were all eventually able to get our boarding passes and make our way through security, duty free shopping, and a secondary passport check to the gate for our flight from Copenhagen to New York City.
Customs in New York was quicker than expected – the automated system was a little confusing, but the kiosks actually worked this time to help expedite the process. We had the chance to eat lunch (dinner? breakfast?) before boarding the flight back to Phoenix. In all, from the wake up call at the hotel to the time we picked up our bags in Phoenix, more than 24 hours had passed, but with the time change, we left Wednesday afternoon and arrived Wednesday night.
Two weeks. Five countries. Six performances. One amazing experience.
As Michael wrote in the daily devotional, “So why are these tours so special. Well, part of it is the music, you can’t deny that. Also the sense of accomplishment that comes from a job (or performance) well done, reaching and touching hundreds, if not thousands of people. The people make it special also, both those with whom we travel, and those we meet. But it is also the aspect of ministry, bringing God’s Word and music to those who hear us.”
We return home thankful for the places we’ve seen, for the people we’ve met and friendships we’ve intensified, and for all the ways we’ve been changed for the better.