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.