Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas, Belgian Style

Time out on the other posts to interject a seasonally-themed one!

One huge difference between Europe and the US in the lead-up to Christmas is that instead of having malls full of decorations, European cities have Christmas markets. A bunch of wooden stalls pop up in the center of the city, along with rides and probably an ice-skating rink. We had hoped to get out of Belgium to see another one (the Germans are supposed to have amazing Christmas markets), but it didn't end up happening. Nevertheless, we managed to see the markets in Bruges and Brussels in addition to the one here in Gent.

On the Korenmarkt

"Auto-awesomed" by Google. Thanks, Google!
That's Gent, done up in holiday splendor. Our market is kind of a small affair, spread out between three different squares. It's pretty easy to navigate, although having the ice rink in the middle of it makes it a little less convenient than it could be. It's nice, though, with a good mix of stalls selling stuff and stalls selling food and drink. We sampled some of the Cornish potatoes (potatoes, cheese, cream and bacon) and drunken sailors (prawns fried in some sort of vodka batter).

I love how it looks like the wheel almost doesn't fit.
Christmas market season seemed like a good time for a second pass at Bruges. It is definitely improved by the market - although there are a lot of tourists, it feels like there's some reason for them to be there. Also, it's definitely scenic.

It's hard to maintain outdoor ice rinks when the weather is hovering around 10C/50F, I imagine. Gent's had the texture of a snow cone, and the one in Bruges seemed to be equally suited to ice skating or using it as a waterslide. But it's certainly photogenic.

Bruges had a lot more lights, and more carnival games for the kids. They didn't have a ferris wheel, though. I think it would actually be a pretty cool place to see from a ferris wheel - they should find a place for one next year! Morgan and I sampled some crostillons/oliebollen (which we'd had for the first time at the festival in Liège).

Having had time to reflect on it, I've come to the conclusion that my main problem with Bruges is that I've been living in Gent. If you're visiting from out of the country, or probably from other places in Belgium like Brussels or Wallonia, I bet Bruges is not a disappointment at all. But when you already live somewhere that looks pretty much like it, it just doesn't have much to offer. (Aside from a bigger Christmas market.)

Santa is a terrible influence.

The final market we visited was in Brussels. They won for the most confusing layout, hands down. They managed to scatter a little bit of it everywhere, trailing from the Grand Place/Grote Markt to the Place Sainte-Catherine. And in spite of Santa's encouragement, Brussels is the only market where we didn't have any glühwein!

One thing that made the visit to Brussels completely worth it is the light show they put on in the Grand Place. I figured it would be some sort of blinky-lights affair, but boy was I wrong. They light up the buildings all around the square and change the colors in time to the music. To the right is a still of one of the buildings mid-show. It was pretty spectacular, and surprisingly un-crowded. Last time we were in Brussels, the Grand Place was a nightmare. Although, as it turns out, I could have used more people there to serve as a windbreak. It hasn't been all that cold here this December, but the wind has been a killer!

In addition to that, Brussels had two really awesome steampunk carousels. I'd never seen anything like them. According to their website, they're from France and if you check out the site, they also have a giant walking mechanical elephant you can ride on. I wish that had been at the market!

Like bugs? How about giant bugs?

Stag beetle is just one of the rather odd choices to ride on. There was also a mole (visible by the horns of the beetle), a flying horse (on the right) with a bird above it and to the right. On both of those, you had levers to operate the wings. One of the carousels also had a hot-air balloon where the balloon part was a blowfish. The smaller carousel had a rocket ship that rose and fell, and at the top of its path, it actually went through a hole in the roof to look out from above. Super imaginative and cool.

And then maybe some of it is really meant to induce nightmares.

The seat is there behind his head. He lowers himself down to the level of the manhole and then raises himself back up. And I guess that to avoid ending on a totally weird note, I should add some other nice photos to the end of this post!

 Merry Christmas to everyone out there, and best wishes for the New Year - I'll see you stateside!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Can You Find Luxembourg on a map?

I could, even before coming to Belgium, probably mostly thanks to studying for Jeopardy. The only things I really knew about it, though, were:

1. It's tiny.
2. The capital is also called Luxembourg.
3. It's tiny - on The Amazing Race one season, the contestants had a task of bicycling across the country (the addition of this fact makes #3 slightly different from #1. Also, without it, I probably wouldn't have had a #3.).

But as it turned out, our landlady here in Gent (I'll just call her "T.") is originally from Luxembourg. And she was interested in going to visit her family over the long weekend at the first of November (All Saint's Day is a holiday). She has had some recent trouble with one of her arms, so driving is not that easy for her; would we be willing to drive her to Luxembourg? Then she would stay with her family, and we could have the car to go sightseeing on our own.

That's a great deal, obviously, and we said "definitely!"

And that's how I ended up driving in Europe for the first time. It was ... interesting, considering I didn't understand all the signs or know offhand what a reasonable speed in kilometers per hour is on any given type of road. But in general, driving is driving, and we made it there without mishap. We met our landlady's brother and some family friends, and went out with T. and her brother ("F.").

We had dinner at the hotel where we were staying, and it was amazing. I had steak tartare, which I've been interested in, but never had occasion to order before. The waiter was very patient with me when he came to make it at the table and I didn't really know what I would want him to put into it. With my requests to leave the capers out, and make it spicy but not really spicy, he got it perfectly to my taste. I somehow didn't take any photos of dinner, but I guess something that is essentially a raw hamburger isn't going to look too appealing anyway.

To make up for that, here's a look at breakfast.

Luxembourgers know how to start the day. (At hotels, anyway.)
 The next day, F. took us on a tour of some highlights of Luxembourg. We first looked at some of the sights of Esch-sur-Alzette, which is where we were staying. It's the second-largest city (or town, I guess - it has 27,000 people) in Luxembourg. It also used to be a center for steel production. Apparently, steel is still big business in the country, after recovering from over-production in the '70s. Nevertheless, there is only one steel processing plant still working in Esch, and it's scheduled to close soon.

The revamping of this industrial area involves a mall, big concert hall, and buildings for the University of Luxembourg. There was a lot of construction going on, all with a very modern feel. I didn't manage to take a picture of those, although the buildings were very interesting.

Then we headed into Luxembourg City.

It's a city that's set up on terrain that gives it a very odd layout. Because of the cliffs, this location has been used many times as a spot for fortifications, starting somewhere around the 10th century. The photo above was taken from the main downtown area of the city, looking over the parts that are below. It's hard to effectively capture the way the city is set on multiple levels, but I might have some additional pictures to post to give you a better idea of it.

The Luxembourgish saying on this window is "Mir wölle bleiwe wat mir sin," and it translates to "We want to remain what we are." It's the national motto, and refers to the fact that they have been taken over by and beholden to the countries around them many times, but they want to be independent. It's a sort of Luxembourgish "We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take this anymore!" (That's from the movie Network, in case you haven't seen it.)

And now, a statue!

This one is in the Place Guillaume II, and coincidentally, the guy on the horse is Guillaume II ... better known as William II of the Netherlands, who was also the Grand Duke of Luxembourg. In Luxembourgish, they call the square "Knuedler," which means "knot." I'm a little unclear on why that is, though, because it's not a particularly knotty intersection of streets or anything. But there you have it.

We also went to the Philharmonie Luxembourg, partially because it's an interesting building and partially because you can get a nice view of the city from its location in the Kirchberg area, which is up on a plateau. The area is full of very modern buildings, and has the European Court of Justice and European Investment Bank, among other EU facilities.

It looks a little like an air filter to me, I have to admit.
F. told us that the wind blowing between the hollow columns originally made a lot of noise, and they had to go back and partially fill them with water or sand or something. I can't find any reference to that online, so you can take it with a grain of salt. It's an amusing idea, if nothing else.

I wasn't able to get any really terrific shots of the view (someone went and built a hotel blocking the best of it ... the nerve!), but I'll post one I took anyway.

It's like standing in between two worlds - below is about a century or so behind the area above, which is a world of metal and glass.

That's plenty for now. More to come soon!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Last of Italy (For Now)

I'm just going to throw together some odds and ends from Italy for this post. I took a lot of photos while we were there (go figure), and some of them just didn't fit into the previous posts, but I still want to share them.

So, here are some of those photos. The one above and the two below capture some of what I loved about the feeling on the streets in Padua. Sometimes you would find yourself on quiet stretches where you wouldn't see another soul for blocks, and your steps would echo through the arcaded sidewalks. Other times, it was all groups of people having loud conversations and motorcycles zipping past. Both situations have their charm.

Then there were the architectural details. Like everyone else who visits Italy, I was drawn to the colors of the buildings, the shapes of the windows and doors. I don't know that I managed to capture it in any meaningful way, but I had to try.



I am still adding photos to my Flickr sets for Padua and Venice, so if you want to see even more, check over there (Venice and Padua). I really enjoyed our week there, and it was interesting to go somewhere so different from the places we had been before (Belgium, Netherlands, Germany - even France, since we only got into French Flanders). And that wraps up Italy for now.

Next time, I'll be posting about Luxembourg, a country that is so small it makes Belgium feel immense.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Venice, the Original

I was thinking about how I've heard "Venice of the North" applied to so many cities that it sort of loses its meaning: Amsterdam, Bruges, St. Petersburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm. There's got to be more to Venice than just having canals, right?

Since Venice is only about 40 minutes by slow train from Padua, I figured I'd make a day trip there. It would be ridiculous to be so close and not even see the city, although I had to go alone since Morgan was busy working. When you step out of the train station, you're already in another world. The Grand Canal is just steps in front of you, and you're faced with the first of many green-topped domes you'll see.
I wandered in the same general direction as the throngs of tourists. I didn't have a plan, or a map. My goal was just to walk around and see what I could manage to see.

As you can see, it's not too hard to
follow the tourists.
The streets were lined with souvenir stands - t-shirts, hats, Venetian carnival masks, Murano glass, magnets, whatever your little heart could desire to take home as a reminder. It's sort of hard to believe that they can all survive crowded on top of each other like that, but I guess the moral of the story is that Venice has enough tourism dollars to go around. I was surprised to see that it doesn't rank in the top 20 most-visited cities worldwide (according to Business Insider), but that's got to be a blessing, considering how much real estate many of those cities have in comparison to Venice.

Periodically you'll see signs on the corners of buildings that direct you toward the Piazza San Marco and/or the Rialto, so I broke away from the crowd and started meandering along small streets and crossing smaller bridges. I had been warned that it's easy to get lost or stuck in dead ends, but I didn't have much of a purpose in mind except "eventually end up at Piazza San Marco," so I figured it wasn't that big of a deal.
Plus, it was relaxing and quiet once you got away from the major crowds. Just Venetians going on about their daily business - people passing on bridges and stopping to talk, a woman asking what time it was and exclaiming over how much she was running late. In these parts of the city, it felt like a small town.

I thought I remembered something about cats in Venice, but I only saw one.

After doing some searching online, it appears that the cats were rounded up some years ago and deported to another island. There are still some hanging around, but not many.

It's strange to walk around and realize after a while that foot traffic is all there is. Obviously no cars, but also no bicycles. The only things with wheels were the dollies the delivery men were using (with frequent "attenzione!"s as they came up behind you). I found my way to Piazza San Marco and was back in the thick of the tourist crowd.
The church in the center, some of it on the left covered in scaffolding.
The Doge's Palace is on the right.
I thought about going into the Basilica, but there was already a long line across the square, and there was no shade whatsoever. I was hot, and tired, and just didn't feel like dealing with it. So instead, I took pictures of the outside and contemplated what to do.
I was clear on what I couldn't do.
I walked down to the shore of the lagoon to check out the tide situation. I had no idea what the deal was with flooding, just that it sometimes happened. I asked one of the souvenir vendors about it. "Not today!" he said. I looked at the portable walkways out around the square, and he said, "They're just getting ready. But it won't happen until October or November. Don't worry!" Of course, I'd been more hopeful than worried, but now at least I knew.

I took a photo of the infamous Bridge of Sighs, and decided to check if the line for the basilica had improved. It hadn't; instead, it had gotten longer. So I definitely checked that off my list for the day and decided to push on to other parts of the city. After much trekking, I found myself on another island at what seemed to be the edge of the world.

You're gonna have to make this one bigger to really see it.
Don't be lazy - click it!
I visited the basilica there (Santa Maria della Salute) and rested for a while just listening to the water lap against the concrete. Of course, most of the lapping was caused by the incessant boat traffic going by, so that impacted the relaxation effect a little! Eventually I had to rouse myself to head back to the train station to go back to Padua. The shadows were starting to get long.

So I said goodbye to Venice with a photo out the window of the train as we prepared to cross the bridge back to the mainland.
It's been so hard keeping from adding even more pictures than I've already put into this post, but if you're looking for more, I'm working to upload the rest to my Venice Flickr set. I haven't got them all there yet by any stretch of the imagination, but give me a few days and check back because there will be more. And the night shot that's there is from my second trip to Venice, not this one (what? I've already been back?! Indeed, I have.).

The next post will probably be a sort of general wrap-up of whatever loose ends I have regarding Italy (in other words, an excuse to post photos I didn't find a place for yet). Or, you never know, it might be something else entirely. Watch this space.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Where Cameras Fear To Tread

I mentioned in a previous post that sometimes I forget things we've done because there were no cameras allowed, which means I don't have photos to jog my memory for the posts. Well, there were a number of those types of places in Padova. First up is the Cappella della Scrovegni, the exterior of which isn't much to look at. But the inside is covered by frescoes painted by Giotto.

I lifted the picture from Wikipedia for obvious reasons.
This is apparently the #1 thing to see in the city. You have to get your tickets ahead of time, and show up half an hour early for your scheduled time. And once it's your appointment time, you don't actually go directly into the chapel. You sit in a climate-controlled room and watch a video about it. After that, your group is finally allowed through the airlock into the chapel itself.

For 15 minutes.

To me, it wasn't that big of a deal because I'm no religious scholar so I mostly just saw "ooh, paintings," but I can imagine that if you were familiar with all the stories depicted and wanted to examine those, or the technique, or the restoration work in detail, you wouldn't have nearly enough time. There's still a lot of restoration work to be done because unfortunately over the years, the adjoining buildings were knocked down and the chapel had its bare brick walls left open to the elements, which took its toll on the frescoes.

My verdict on the whole thing: it's the thing to see, so you probably should, but go in with your expectations set. You're going to feel herded and you won't get as much time as you might want. On the other hand, the fact that 1. the whole thing arose because some guy felt guilty about his family being moneylenders and 2. Giotto painted essentially every square inch of the walls of the entire building, and did it in a spectacular style, make it pretty interesting.

While on the subject of frescoes, the baptistry in the Duomo di Padova (Padua Cathedral) was also decorated in the "more is more" style. These were done by Giusto de' Menabuoi in the 14th century. He's not a household name, but the paintings are pretty incredible. And at the baptistry, you pay your €5 and can stare at it for as long as you want, without any airlocks or associated hassles.

The rest of the Duomo is more recent. As is frequently the case, there were older churches on the site but one burned down and one was destroyed in an earthquake. The one that is currently in place was finished in 1754 and is curiously ordinary-looking outside, and very modern inside.

Effigy? Wax figure? Mummy? Cryogenically
preserved body? I have no idea.
We also visited the Palazzo Bo, which contains an operating theater which used to be used by the University of Padua. As a side note, the University of Padua is one of the oldest in continuous operation, and in Italy is second only to Bologna. That's nothing to sneeze at, since Bologna is the oldest one in the world. Some pretty famous names have found their way there, incuding Copernicus and Galileo, who was the chair of the mathematics department around 1600. (Also Casanova studied there, although I don't know that he's terribly famous academically speaking.)

Anyhow, back to the operating theater. This thing is awesome.

You can't go into it anymore, you can only look at it from below the spot where the body would have been laid. However, it's still amazing to see. This is the oldest operating theater in Europe, and it's hard to tell from the photo, but the space between railings was standing room only and it's a surprisingly tiny room. Students were crammed in there (capacity was 250 people) and apparently fainting was a problem, although since you were so well wedged in, you couldn't really fall anywhere. Very practical.

For the final no-cameras destination, Morgan and I visited St. Anthony's Basilica.

You can take pictures of the outside.
This was my first visit to a basilica associated with a real saint, by which I mean one I'd actually heard of. The inside is pretty ornate, although not wall-to-wall frescoes or anything.

Although you can't take pictures, there are no rules against drawing.
The two main attractions of the basilica are the Tomb of St. Anthony and the treasury that contains his relics. The treasury was all glass and gold, with containers which include St. Anthony's larynx and his tongue. I didn't really know what to think about that - bones don't seem that weird to me, but a jar with a tongue in it strikes me as maybe a little strange. (I just discovered that some of the relics have been on tour in the UK, which is also odd to me.)

The tomb is in another part of the church. On the day I was there, it was quite busy. A line of people shuffles past the tomb, and touch it and pray to St. Anthony.

I walked around it, but I didn't touch it as it just didn't seem right. It's not my religion; I am merely an observer. I felt even more strongly about that as I looked around - St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things and people, and everywhere were photographs of children who are presumably missing.

I can't really think of anything to follow that up with, so I'll just leave it at that. Next time, a day trip to Venice.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

I Say "Italy," You Say ...

I am currently sitting in Padova, writing a blog post about Padova as I saw it two months ago. I didn't expect to be back here - life is surreal sometimes.

As I said, this time, I'll show and talk about some of the typical Italian scenes and sights. One thing that people think of when you say "Italy": markets in the piazzas. At right is the Piazza dei Signori, with the Torre dell'Orologio at one end (more on that in a minute). This market spans 3 squares which are laid out one after the other - the Piazza dei Signori (Lords' Square), Piazza dei Frutti (Fruits Square) and Piazza delle Erbe (Herbs Square). The atmosphere is vibrant, and there are a variety of things for sale.

Mmm, veggies.
Meat and cheese shops are in a gallery next to the square.
Our hotel was not far on the other side of the arch in the tower, so I often started my morning by passing through the markets. Then in the afternoon, the booths are packed up and the area fills with tables and chairs for the bars and restaurants that surround the square.

Piazza dei Signori facing the other direction. After a short
rain shower, the tables start filling up again.

Back to the Torre dell'Orologio - on the tower is an astronomical clock that was built in the 15th century. It's a replacement for one that was from 1344. It displays the time, date, and current astrological sign. That is, unless the current sign is Libra, which is not represented. I've read a few different theories on why that is the case, but I can't tell you which one is true. It's not clear whether the original had Libra and the copy left it off for some reason, or if this is a faithful representation of the 1344 version as well. In any event, the clock has Scorpio taking up two spaces.

Another thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Italy: statues. And if you want to see statues, have I got the place for you ... Prato della Valle. Apparently, there are 78 statues in this park - I didn't count them, so I have to trust Wikipedia on that! But in any event, this spot is statue central.

How statues reproduce.

The park is a big oval surrounded by a canal, and the statues are lined up along both sides of the water. It's a terrific place for taking photos because it's got a bit of everything - in addition to the statues, there's greenery, bridges, reflections on the water, scenic buildings and churches in the background. One of the buildings you get a great view of is the Abbey of Santa Giustina - in the background of the photo at the bottom of this post. From another angle, you can see the Basilica of San Antonio, which I'm not going to talk about right now because churches will be the subject of another post (you can't throw a rock in Padua without hitting a church).

And that's it for this post! I'm guessing the next one will probably be about churches, unless something else strikes my fancy as I go through my photos.