Thursday, September 26, 2013

Kicking Around Home

While Emily was here, we had some scattered days that we spent in Gent in amongst all the trips to places near and far. I saved all of those days up, figuring I'd consolidate all of it into one post before drawing our time with Emily to a close. So hold onto your hats, we're going on a whirlwind tour of what we did in Gent.

The Empire State Building, it's not.
I met her at the airport in Brussels at midday and we took the train back to Gent. I told her there would be no sleep until a normal bedtime (tough love is the only way to combat jet lag), and asked if she felt up to riding a bike. She did, so off we went to visit the city center. First we went up to the observation level of the belfry. Even though I'd been up there before, it was nice to see the view on a sunny day.

We spent a while looking around at the city, and we also got to watch the big steel drum that controls the bells go to work on the quarter-hour. It's kind of like a giant version of what works a player piano.

We had lunch sitting by that green area.
We just sort of wandered the city center and checked everything out, which included the graffiti street.

Emily says, "I've been traveling for 16 hours and you want to take
pictures of me? Really?"
Dinner was Surinamese food and the first beers of the trip. Welcome to legal drinking at the age of 19! After all of that, it was late enough that I had mercy on her and let her go to sleep.

You'd think maybe he'd have worn something
a little less form-fitting to see the King.
The next day, we did some more riding around and exploring. We took a photo as part of our "Emily with Statues" project. I'm not even sure exactly how this got started, but now whenever we see a statue, Emily poses with it. So she paused for a moment with the Stropdrager (noose bearer, the symbol of Gent) before we went on our way.

In the evening, we took her to a bar (don't judge, let me explain first - it was a cultural experience). It was a jenever bar, and jenever is a traditional drink in Belgium. It's kind of like a mild gin - it's juniper-flavored in theory, but it's not so strong-tasting as gin. "Young" jenever is a neutral spirit, so you can flavor it like you can vodka. The guy who owns the bar does exactly that - he has a menu of a bunch of different flavors. We tried some fruity ones like pomegranate and sour apple, and some creamy ones like vanilla and coffee.

This is Emily's photo of the sign for the bar ('t Dreupelkot).
That's the owner's picture up on the sign. He looks exactly like that, too.
We tried to check out the Bij Sint-Jacobs flea market on Friday morning, but it was rainy and by the time we got there, they were all packing up their goods. So instead we sat in one of the little spots nearby and had some coffee together while the rain subsided. I have to admit that the warm coffee in a cozy place made the wet bike ride worth it! Since the rain had stopped, we headed out to St. Bavo's Abbey, which was mostly destroyed by someone (probably Charles V, he seems to have caused a lot of trouble around here) and now stands as partially-overgrown ruins.

But scenic partially-overgrown ruins.
On the last day we spent together in Gent, I was running a doozy of a fever (unbeknownst to me until the end of the day). But that didn't slow us down! We went to the real English Bookshop, a used bookstore for English-language books run by a British guy. (Note: I say the real one because there is another store called the English Bookshop, but they apparently exist so that Belgians can practice their English, not for native speakers of English. In other words, they have a million English grammar books and some bestselling books, but no books in English that help you learn Dutch.) Book shopping together is always fun, and it was nice to help Emily pick out a book for her travels home, although she read half of it before she left. (If you're curious, the book was The Secret History.)

We also toured Gravensteen, which is a castle sitting in the middle of the city.

Seriously, I live in a city that has something like this just plopped
in the middle of it.
Inside, you get to see the pits where prisoners were kept, a guillotine, and a display of torture implements. Fun for the whole family! Afterwards, we shopped for chocolates for Emily to take home, and we had waffles together in the Groentenmarkt square.

And just like that, somehow our time was up in Gent. It was time for Emily to pack her suitcase and for us to head to Brussels for a day before putting her on a plane back home. I'll leave you with a photo we asked someone to take for us. Emily very carefully figured out where we'd need to stand to have Gravensteen visible behind us, and then found someone to ask to take our photo. Emily explained we wanted Gravensteen there between us. Said person then kept asking us to move closer together, completely unconcerned that we were going to be blotting out the castle. In the end, it all worked out though - mom, daughter, canal, castle, puffy white clouds. What more could you ask for?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Even More French

The day after we went to Liège, we continued on our French-speaking way (we didn't plan it that way) and went for a day trip to Lille, France. Lille is, interestingly, in what is considered "French Flanders." So it's like the area of Belgium we live in, except they speak French. There's some history there involving Louis XIV claiming it for France and ultimately taking it away from Flanders, which the citizens were none too thrilled with at the time. But they got over it, started speaking French, and now, 350 or so years later, they seem pretty fluent in it.

Lille looks like a completely charming mash-up of French and
Flemish ideas.
We went without a plan, or any idea what was of interest to see. Well, actually our plan was "be in France, and see what Lille is all about," so we wandered around and soaked up the atmosphere. First, we checked out the Grand Place, which is where the buildings above were.

The Column of the Goddess, aka the Memorial of
the Siege of 1792.
The Column of the Goddess is a memorial of the Siege of 1792, during the French Revolution. The city was bombarded by Austrian cannonballs but didn't  give in. Apparently at least one of the building façades still has cannonballs embedded in it. Interesting side note: she is wearing what is called a "mural crown," which according to the ever-helpful Wikipedia represents a town or city, and so marks the statue as a sort of patron of the city.

Since we had arrived at about lunchtime, our next order of business was to find a place to eat. We stumbled upon a crepes place, and that sounded like a good idea to all of us. I didn't get photos of our savory crepes because we devoured them much too fast, but when it was time for dessert crepes I had a bit more presence of mind.

Cassonade, or Lille sugar.
Behind mine is Morgan's, which has ice cream lurking under it.
The wind thoroughly foiled the waiter's attempts to set Emily's on fire.
I mean, the alcohol on this one. He wasn't trying to incinerate her crepe.
I had no idea what "Lille sugar" was, but it seemed like the appropriate thing to order. I have since learned that the French are very serious about their sugar. It turns out it's a moist, fine version of brown sugar. I thought it tasted a little different than American brown sugar, though I don't know that I can describe exactly how. Suffice it to say, it was delicious. Morgan's crepe had a chestnut sauce, and Emily's had Grand Marnier that refused to be set on fire and I forget what the sauce was. The point of all this is, the crepes were delicious and I would take the train to Lille again just to have them.

While we were out walking, it started raining. We weren't sure if that was going to put an end to our exploration or not, but we quickly realized that everyone around us was taking temporary shelter under store awnings, so we followed suit. If the locals thought it was something that could just be waited out, we figured we'd trust them. In about 10 minutes, the rain passed over us and everyone went on about their business. It was a fun little shared moment with everyone.

And of course, there was a church. There are always churches. This one was Saint-Maurice. which Wikipedia tells me was started in the 14th century but not completed until the 19th. We had a good (if probably blasphemous) laugh over finding a statue of St. Expeditus. "Must be the patron saint of UPS drivers," I said. (Note: as it turns out, he's apparently the saint to ask for help keeping you from procrastinating, and he's also the patron saint of hackers. Hm.)

Lille has the world's slowest church-builders.
We also saw the (outside of the) Palais des Beaux-Arts. I just read that it's the largest French museum outside of Paris. I guess that when I go back to Lille for more crepes, I should check that museum out, too.

It's bigger on the inside, I think.
We had coffee, did some people-watching, and let the cacophony of French conversations all around just wash over us. It was a casual, relaxing day, and a nice way to get a feel for this particular corner of France. And with the end of our day in Lille, the end of Emily's time in Europe was also fast approaching. We had just one more stop to make - Brussels. But for the blog, there'll be an additional stop: I'm going to do a post summing up the days we spent in Gent, which were interspersed among these other trips I've been writing about. For the time being, I'll leave you with a last photo from Lille. (You know you can always click on a photo to see a larger version of it, right?)

And since it's probably bad form to end a blog post on a parenthetical statement, I'll also add that somewhere at the end of all the blathering about these visits, I'll post links to where you can see more photos from each place, because there definitely are more photos!

There is a lot going on here, and I understand
almost none of it.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Dash to Wallonia

In looking around for what might be going on during the time Emily was visiting, I read about the 15 August festival in Liège. I figured it might be fun to see, and also it would get us to Wallonia, so that she (and Morgan and I) could experience the French-speaking part of Belgium.

Digression about Belgium and its 3 national languages: It is true that Belgium officially has 3 national languages: Dutch, French and German. You may also hear Belgian Dutch and Belgian French referred to as Flemish and Walloon; these are dialects used in Belgium. If you come from somewhere that doesn't have multiple national languages, you might think having several means that the country operates bilingually. In the case of Belgium, you'd be very wrong. Instead, in Flanders, everything is in Dutch. People in stores speak Dutch, signs are in Dutch, etc. If you came here without knowing that there were other national languages, you'd have no reason to think there were. If you go to Liège, on the other hand, everything will be in French. You'll get "bon jour" instead of "goede morgen," "merci" instead of "dank u," and all signs are in French. (Presumably it's the same in the German-speaking area, although that's a tiny amount of the country and apparently fading fast, being consumed by the French speakers.)

We got a late start on the day, and there aren't that many trains that stop in Liège, so we were in a bit of a rush when we got to the station. We were trying to figure out which train we had to take, but couldn't find it listed on any of the routes. After a bit of going back and forth, we found the station name (Guillemins), and realized we hadn't seen it because it was listed with the Dutch version of the name - Luik. (Yes, even the city names are different, and although you can often tell which is which (Oostende in Dutch is Ostend in French, Gent is Gand, Brussel is Bruxelles, etc.), sometimes you can't, as with Luik/Liège or in an extreme case - Bergen/Mons.

The Liège train station made me feel like we were
arriving in an episode of "The Jetsons."

We made the train, though, and shortly arrived in Liège. Now we just had to make our way to the appropriate part of the city for the festival. Morgan found an information desk, and she told us which bus to take. When we got on the bus, he asked the driver for confirmation that the bus was going to the festival. The driver seemed to speak no English at all, so, unable to cobble together anything intelligible in French, we just had to hope for the best. After going what seemed like a long way on the bus, we found an area where a lot of pedestrians seemed to be headed in one direction, so we followed them.

We came upon a carnival along the street and started looking for something to eat, since it was a little past lunchtime. The streets were lined with cafes, but they mostly seemed to be for drinking only. We happened upon a little stand with a couple of guys selling samosas, so we got those. Morgan talked to the guy for a while; they had been in Belgium for a couple of years and were broke, so they thought they'd try to take advantage of the festival and set up a stand outside the convenience store. The samosas were very good!

Then we saw that people were lining up in preparation for a parade. Who doesn't love a parade? Information about the festival mentioned "the giants of Liège" as being part of the festival, but I didn't know what they were talking about until they appeared.

You can see the little window for the operator in
her apron if you look closely.
They're really fun, and range from humorous to amazingly realistic to terrifying in a second-grade-craft-project sort of way. They're worn by someone who is inside a wicker frame, and looks out of a window in the crotch area of the giant (sorry there's not a more delicate way to put that). One of the qualifications seems to be an imperviousness to getting dizzy, since whenever the parade comes to a stop (which seems to happen a lot), the giant will dance and spin in circles to give the crowd a good view of it.

The guy operating the knight in particular had
strong inner ears. He spun around until I got dizzy,
but he never seemed in danger of falling over.
In that last photo, you can see that they all have a group of handlers, presumably to keep them on the parade track since visibility isn't very good, I imagine. Also, they probably have to keep them from rampaging through the crowds causing mayhem if they start to believe they really are giants.

The rest of the parade was relatively standard - dancers, bands of various sorts, human marionettes ... all the usual.

Oh, and this guy. He was nearly my favorite.
The best part, though, was when this came through:

I had no idea what these people were, but I said to Emily as soon as I saw
them, "Hm, watch out for these guys!"
They were masked witches, carrying brooms and wearing wigs of hay. They also wore clogs, which they used like skates; they'd run and then slide on them directly at the crowd. Once they're right in front of you, they take a handful of rice from the bag around their waist and drop it over your head. Or in my case, down your shirt. They also throw rice generally over the crowd as they pass. Emily and I got pretty well riced, since we were in the very front of the crowd. We left feeling like we'd had a real cultural experience, though who knows what its significance was.

Okay, I had to break down and look it up. Apparently they're called "macrales" in Walloon, and they appear at various festivals. They're blamed for a number of woes, including the onset of winter.  Here's a video of some different (and considerably more subdued) ones at a parade somewhere else in Wallonia.

We finished off our time in Liège with some croustillons, which were freshly-fried, sort of donut-hole-type things that were absolutely drowning in powdered sugar. We had been joking that we gave Emily a tour of the unhealthiest food options everywhere we went, and Liège was no exception. Satisfied with our outing, we headed back home to Gent.

In the next installment: more French.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cologne, with Another Everest Reference

Gosh, are we still in Cologne? I mean, I'm not physically still in Cologne, of course. I'm not even in Gent at the moment. I'm writing this blog post in a hotel in Padova, Italy. Which means that I am getting more behind by the moment. But let's not think about that for the time being. Instead, let's hop into the Wayback Machine and set the dial for Cologne.

In my last post, we had just blown our minds at the Golden Chamber in the Basilica of St. Ursula, as you may recall. We headed out to the Belgian Quarter, which was supposed to be sort of hipster central in terms of shopping. I didn't see that much evidence of hipsters, but there were a few cool shops - music, clothes, kitschy goods. Some interesting street art, if that's your bag (daddy-o).

We visited a biergarten so Emily could experience the flavor of Germany (beer and pretzels). It wasn't the nicest of days and we were all getting chilly, so although we had a nice return bike ride along the Rhine, we didn't stop to take pictures. But we did head back in that direction to eat dinner, and now that we were properly attired, we took advantage of the photo ops.

We had dinner at a Thai place here. The river is just out of frame,
opposite the buildings.
After we were fed, we did a little night wandering. I haven't yet mentioned the elephant in the room, or really, the elephant in the middle of Cologne. Officially, it's the Cologne Cathedral, but it's generally just known as the Kölner Dom. Lonely Planet called it "the Mt. Everest of cathedrals."

I hope that photo gives some sense of scale. First of all, let me point out that I was across a square from it and still couldn't get the whole thing in the picture. Secondly, those are normal-sized people down there in front of it.

We planned to go into it the next day, but like moths to a flame or one magnet to another magnet or something, we were drawn to look at the outside at night. I wouldn't be surprised if there was actually a scientific explanation - this thing must have its own gravitational pull (this aerial image on Wikipedia shows you how it looms over everything). We ended the evening really excited to see the inside.

The next morning after I loaded up on liverwurst at breakfast ("mmm, cat food!"), we dove into the Dom. There was so much to see that we pretty quickly lost each other and just wandered. I took just short of a million pictures while we were there.

I'm going to try to give you an idea of what it's like inside without making your eyes bleed from too many pictures. It's actually made slightly easier by the fact that I know nothing about churches or Catholicism so I often have no idea what I'm taking pictures of, and therefore can't offer any lengthy explanations. Lucky you.

The ceiling isn't much to look at, I admit, but it
goes on forever.
First off, here is a not-great picture that shows what the interior is like. It's like ... the Great Hall at Hogwarts, except bigger and with higher ceilings. Much higher ceilings. I tried a variety of ways to capture the enormity of the inside, but I don't think I managed with any of them. This one comes the closest.

And now for a few of the details. There's something for everyone!

You like tombs? We've got tombs.
Shrines? So. Many. Shrines.
Stained glass? But of course.
Well, that about wraps it up. We had to leave and come back to see the whole thing, so there was a lunch involved, and some time spent at a cafe having coffee. But generally, we saw the Dom and then in the evening, it was time to catch our train back to Gent.

Here's one final image from our time in Cologne:
You can never go wrong with ice cream.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Next Stop: Cologne

Did you know that Cologne actually had something to do
with, well, cologne? I admit I didn't.
We arrived in Köln at night. Cologne on a Sunday night was a considerably quieter place than Amsterdam on a Friday night, so there were no crazy crowds, no packed trams. I snapped a quick picture inside the train station, and then we just grabbed our stuff and headed in the direction of the hotel. The sign, by the way, is a big advertisement for the original eau de Cologne (which sounds way better than the German version, seen here: Echt Kölnisch Wasser), brand name (brand number?) 4711.

In the morning, we had a great breakfast at our hotel. German breakfasts usually consist of lunchmeat, cheeses, and bread, and we had those things, but also cereal, boiled eggs (this trip introduced Emily to egg cups), fruit, yogurt, antipasti ... I'm probably leaving out some things. But the point is, it was delicious, and we kind of wished it was breakfast all day.

We had decided to follow the same plan as in Amsterdam - rent bikes for one day, walk for the second one - so we headed down to pick them up. Riding bikes in Cologne was a little different than in Amsterdam or Gent. (This is an understatement.) It took us a while to figure out whether we were even supposed to be on some busy streets because bike lanes may or may not exist. It seemed to be that generally, bikes behaved as if they were cars ... except when they decided to just ride on the sidewalk. This is a huge no-no in Belgium! Of course, in Belgium, cars also yield right-of-way to bikes. In Amsterdam, you have dedicated places to ride and often, dedicated traffic signals. In Cologne, you're just another piece of the moving traffic puzzle. So we were nervous at first but got into the groove pretty quickly.

I had seen some photos of animal graffiti/art that seemed to be near the zoo. As it turned out, it was on the outer wall of the zoo itself, so we walked along it and took some pictures.

There's a joke to be made here about Emily finding a stand-in for her
brother ... but I'm not the one to make it.
Mindful that we needed to eat before 2 pm if we planned to eat lunch at all, we found a sandwich shop. This was another one of those times when it became clear we weren't in Belgium or the Netherlands anymore. In Belgium, "Spreekt u Engels?" often gets an "oh, yes." The same question in Amsterdam hardly needs to be asked; people speak English as a matter of course. At the counter of the sandwich shop in Cologne, "Sprechen Sie Englisch?" got a panicked look, and a gesture to someone else. Who spoke a little English. Very little. We muddled through it, though, and it was kind of funny that after every selection we made, she would say, "So?" (Meaning "yes, and?", of course, but it's funny how rude something like that can sound if you choose the wrong synonym.)

After that, we headed to the main thing I'd wanted to see in Cologne: the Basilica of St. Ursula. I had read the story of St. Ursula before, and knew that it was based around a church in Cologne. I'd always wanted to see it, but thought I probably never would. Well, I thought wrong!

Seen one church, seen 'em all. No, seriously, this
one had some really interesting stained glass.
There were several of these praying figures on the upper level.
This was all well and good, but really what we'd come to see was the Golden Chamber. We saw a locked door and a sign in German of which I could read "Golden Chamber," "closed," and something that roughly translated to "thank you for your understanding." But before giving up, I found a woman who was working there and asked her if she spoke English. She replied with a whole bunch of German which included the words "Goldene Kammer" and a questioning tone at the end. I said "Ja," and she went and unlocked the door, asked for our money, and let us into a small room.


Interesting wall decor ... wait, are those clavicles? And femurs?
Kneecaps? Part of a skull?

Yes, that's my name. In bones.
It's worth going to look at my panorama shot of the room, even though it's blurry. Restorers were at work inside, and I guess that made me a little more shy than usual about taking photos, because I didn't take that many (for me). I may have also just been awed and more interested in standing around looking at it instead of looking at the view screen. Usually I do a better job of doing both. I think Morgan and Emily got some good ones in here as well. The legend says that these are the bones of Ursula and her 11,000 virgins, but since the story is probably apocryphal and the bones came from the cemetery on the site of which the basilica was built, these are most likely just the bones of whoever. Nevertheless, how often do you see something like this? Not very often, unless you have hobbies which are frowned upon by society.

That seems like a good stopping point, so I'll be back soon with the next installment of our time in Cologne, which will feature fewer bones.