Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Walk this way...

rooftops of Antwerp

Antwerp differed from our other stops in that we had no plan, didn't go to a single museum or Place of Great Historical Significance. Also we weren't even really sure what the local language was. Flemish? Dutch? French? An amalgam of all of the above? Strangely, this didn't really bother us too much. Everyone spoke English anyway. Convenient.

We'd figured out that Jupiler (not Jupiter, as we'd initially thought it was called) was the beer of choice, located an Irish Pub within half an hour of setting foot in the city, and our hotel room at the Radison Blu was elegantly modern and close to the railway station.

which is stunning, a tourist attraction in it's own right. had we a guidebook we would have known that you can tour the rooftop...but we didn't. Ah well.

We also didn't go to the nearby and famous Antwerp Zoo, one of the oldest in the world,


nor did we search out anything to do with diamonds, even though Antwerp is the mothership. Some 70% of the worlds polished diamonds are traded there. Eh, diamonds schmimonds.

Instead of doing what we might have done had we been in possession of a guidebook, we first figured out the local train system. After spying it on a map we (OK, I) just had to hunt down Elisabeth Station. It's spelled the same way as Bethy's full first name, you see, therefore I needed a cheesy photo.

There. Perfect souvenir. We walked around on streets like these and didn't worry about what time it was or getting lost or anything else.

Grote Markt, the central square of Antwerp was an obvious direction for even the most oblivious tourist, so we trotted obediently in that direction, following the bells of the Cathedral of our Lady.

We decided on principle against paying to enter the cathedral proper,

which may or may not have been worth the entry fee as it is very grand indeed, as you can see from the door.

Later in the day we paused at the doorway again to listen to a violinist playing a nearly flawless and very fast Bach's violin concerto in E major. This particular piece happens to be my personal nemesis. Mike recognised it instantly even though I haven't tortured him or myself with practicing it for a good ten years. This is no reason not to enjoy someone else playing it.

There was no charge to go into the gift shop, (go figure!) so we went in there and peeked around to see the sanctuary. It was fortunate we did this; had we not we would have missed what we irreverently christened "Holy Rollers" for sale:

These six-sided pieces of wood have a different grace on each side, available in the language of your choice. I think they would be great for kids...roll the dice and say yer grace, children.

The Grote Markt,

where cars are forbidden, is a marvelous place to walk around and admire the Flemish renaissance architecture, such as the 16th century city hall:

Many of the buildings were crowned with multiple gold statues, and the cathedral soars above them all. We watched a wedding party gather, including little flowergirls in their darling, overpoweringly frilly white dresses in front of the Brabo Fountain which stands in the middle of the square.

Now, this fountain depicts a man holding a large severed hand aloft with water flowing intermittently out of the chopped end. Tasty.

Antwerp is a port city and in days of old, the legend tells, a nasty giant charged high tolls to the sailing crews wishing to enter the city. If the sailors couldn't pay the giant, in a very giantish way, took the sailors' hands as payment. Not terribly friendly, and an interesting take on the arm-and-a-leg pricetag.

Fortunately for the sailors, a hero named Brabo took things into his own hands (sorry, couldn't help myself) and vanquished the giant by whacking off his head and in a tit-for-tat move, one of the monster's hands. The statue shows Brabo flinging the severed limb into the Scheldt River, freeing Antwerp to become a major trading center.

Nowadays you can buy a nice giant's hand made out of Belgian chocolate as a souvenir to bring home to the grandkids. Can't you just see the t-shirts? "My grandma loves me and went to Antwerp and all I got was this lousy severed hand."

Actually, depending on the kid, that might be pretty cool.

We heard a clop-clop-clop sound and turned to see a tall carriage drawn by honest-to-goodness Belgian draft horses. It's entirely possible I went a little cuckoo with the camera.

There wasn't even a line to ride, so we climbed happily up to the seats, plopping ourselves down onto buttery leather seats. The team stood patiently, patted and cossetted by small children until the dour-faced, white haired, hatted driver reappeared and with gruff sounds and hand gestures shooed them away, a flock of disappointed little birds.

He may have been cranky to children but, not speaking a word, he gave us each beer coupons after we paid a reasonable amount for the tickets. Taking the reins, he clucked to the horses, and they began to pull us easily along a route they'd obviously traversed before.

If you ever get the chance to ride in a carriage I would highly recommend taking it. People's faces lit up as they smiled and some even laughed delightedly at the sight of the team pulling a carriage over cobblestone streets. We were like rock stars, swaying gently back and forth high above the adoring crowds that gathered to watch and photograph us.

There is something terribly romantic about travelling through a city as someone might have hundreds of years ago. Not only was it a wonderful way to see the area, it was also made it easy to plan where we would explore on foot later.

Antwerp is very, very European, not postcard perfect but darned close, and so unpretentious it takes no effort whatsoever to relax at a streetside table enjoying the view and people watching as you also enjoy a beer and a thick slice of meatloaf smothered in saucy cherries with tiny potatoes.

At least, that's what I did. Also highly recommended.

I'll leave you with this bit of graffiti, one I found funny only because it was next to the "Omlegging" sign, which I believe translates to 'detour.'

Isn't that the perfect Dutch-esque name for that fellow?

Monday, February 14, 2011

A crazy little thing called love..

It was a little crazy, deciding on the spur of the moment where we were going to go.

graffiti, Antwerp
I mean, we were in foreign lands, not even able to speak the language. I suppose some might even consider us foolish to not have decided where we were going, reserved our train tickets, and carefully researched the options ahead of time. We had picked the brains of some of our better-traveled European friends as to where we should or should not go, but that was pretty much it.

In the moment, it was rather freeing. Mostly we went for what was convenient. There are worse decision-making techniques being employed out there, right?

And you know what? It worked out fine. Better than fine, actually. The train personnel are multilingual and impressively competent in getting you to where you sporatically decide to go (!), and with the internet it was a simple matter of a few keystrokes to find a hotel room.

All we had to do was book it to the train, which turned out to be so long that we were positively gasping by the time we came to the end of a serious foot-pounding heart thumping hustle to our assigned carriage. Hurled ourselves inside and watched Paris roll away.


I didn't have a color-tabbed guidebook now. Heck, I had no guidebook, no printouts, not even a lousy brochure.


Now, Antwerp has an entirely different feel the moment you step off the train. If Paris is an eclair, then Antwerp is a waffle. Not as serious about itself, nor as decadent or elegant but playful, a little kooky, even.
I remember walking onto campus at university and having a certain sensation, a feeling that we all recognize but there isn't a name for. It's a combination of feeling that the world and life and all their riches are open to you, with a sort of dark undertone that you know they actually aren't, which expresses itself as irony, then gleefully topped with the powdered sugar that is a giddy devil-may-care silliness and a willingness in spite of yourself to try things, to accept the unusual, to see in other ways. It makes you walk rather than drive, talk about deep things and not-so-deep things, crack jokes, linger over drink and conversation, and learn.
Maybe it's just me.
Anyway, that's how Antwerp made me feel. Like a university student in my 20s in the summer sun.
In Antwerp, there is chocolate, (Belgian chocolate!) and there is beer (Belgian beer!), and there is plenty of that incredible coffee for discussions.

This could be heaven. Not a quiet heaven, but a lively, fun one. Cherubs instead of angels and cobblestone lanes to wander

with that outdoorsy, healthy feeling that is unique to certain European cities.

It a place to be in love. How funny is that? We'd just left Paris, which is supposed to be the place to get all gaga and romantic, and we appreciated it, sure, but Antwerp is such an unexpected little gem, a last fling for us before returning to the USA, parenting and bills and jobs and all the everyday things that we, well, have to remind ourselves to appreciate. I suppose it was inevitable to feel a bit goofy.

Which may be why I laughed myself sick over this SUPER SNEL service sign (can't you just hear Colonel Klink shouting it at poor bumbling Schultz?) and then went to find myself and my spousal unit some more lovely beers.
Seemed like the thing to do.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Adieu l'Émile je t'aimais bien

Hauntingly beautiful grave, Cimetière du Montparnasse

We had one unplanned day, unplanned in that we hadn't decided where to be. We could stay in Paris, get on a train to Belgium, either Ghent or Brussels or Antwerp, or go straight back to Amsterdam to get in one more day there. Pretty much Paris-ed out, (nothing against Paris or the Parisians, here, mostly just tired of being two in a sea of tourists) looking at train schedules, we elected to putter around half a day more in Paris, and then à bientôt to France and off to Belgium.

Over breakfast Mike and I flipped through my well-tabbed Lonely Planet guide book to figure out what to do with our last hours in the City of Light.

Ironically, breakfast, like every meal I've had here, was not what I would call light cuisine. Waist-wise, it was a good thing the trip was nearly over. The jeans were getting tight. That salad, however one might wish it to, does not balance out the cheesy goodness and cholesterol. Again, jet fuel espresso, God bless it, was the only way to restart our hearts and get us out the door.

I had carefully color tabbed the pages of the guidebook, which was bristling with them.

Blue tab meant that's interesting. Green was sounds like a tasty place to eat. Yellow meant it could happen. Orange was it would be great if we got to do this. Bright pink tabs screamed DO IT or DIE.

All the bright pinks were done. So we moved on to the oranges, and looked for something maybe a little different. The catacombes fit that bill and would be...interesting. There is a series of tunnels beneath the city, and the catacombes are the portion that has been turned into an underground ossuary. The cold walls are lined with carefully arranged skulls and other bones from the days when the city's cemeteries were mass graves, overfilled with the, you really wouldn't want to drink the groundwater in those days.

Morbid and definitely memorable.

So we went hustled out there on Paris' fantastic Metro, off at the Denfert-Rochereau station, and were greeted by our least favorite thing: the sight of a line that literally went all the way around the block. Seriously? All those people were willing to spend a good amount of a beautiful day in Paris to go down cramped, cold staircases through dark claustrophobic passages under the ground, full of bones and slippery from dripping water?

Well, we weren't willing to stand around. Nicely, I had my little tabbed guidebook, and one orange tab and a few blocks away was the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Montparnasse Cemetery, where rich or distinguished personages from were not stacked like cordwood or tossed into big slimy pits, to say the least. This was a classy sort of neighborhood to end up in.

Heroes from the wars, intellectuals, artists, political leaders, scientists and adventurers are all found here beneath grave markers that range from classic to modern, elegant, elaborate, whimsical to sentimental. With all the sculptures, memorials and serene parklike setting it was a beautiful place to walk. I hear folks even come to picnic on the extensive grounds. Practical.

My favorite tomb would have to be that of Charles Pigeon, the inventor of the Pigeon gas lamp:

Immortalised in a life-sized bronze sculpture, with a pencil and notebook in his hand, he is forever in bed next to his wife, an angel watching from the headboard above them.

Giving a full report here, (you can always count on me!) I discovered one of the most primitive bathrooms I have ever been in, which is saying quite a bit as the bar is set pretty low on that score. It was amazing I got out of there neither wet nor soiled. All the glamour is allotted to the deceased, not wasted on the living.

We walked and walked, stumbling across the graves of such notables as the intellectual partners in political activism, polyamorism, existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (Feel free to add your own -isms to the description, there. I know you can come up with some.)

Tourists had left train ticket stubs and lipstick kisses on this grave, which shows how well those tourists read their guide books. The metro tickets are actually supposed to be left on Serge Gainsbourg's grave in honor of his song "Le Poinçonneur des Lilas," a dark little number about a man in the monotonous and somewhat meaningless job of punching holes in Metro passenger tickets. As he works he fantasises about putting another hole in his head, and then of being placed in his eternal hole in the ground.

Back to today, the misplaced lipstick kisses were supposed to go upon Oscar Wilde's grave, which is in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise (yes, an entirely different cemetery), but I suppose de Bouvier and Sartre would have appreciated the irony and Oscar Wilde certainly would have had a chuckle over it.

The cemetery, in all, is a sort of marvelous outdoor historical museum, full of art and life appreciation moments, and not at all a bad way to spend a morning.

There were a few more wonderfully Parisian moments I have to throw out there:

statue among the lighting and sound setup for a concert

the fantastic Art Deco signage for the Metro

an American musician on the Metro.

Did you know the musicians are held to a certain musical standard and must acquire a license before they may perform on the trains or platform? I approve!

Second menu item down, translated for us as a "piece of the butcher."

Yikes, better wield that cleaver more carefully next time. (I'm kidding, I'm sure it's something much more mundane like a special of the day.)

and what appeared to me to be a perfect moment in Paris,

reading quietly in the midst of the city.

At Paris Nord we boarded what was by then, emphatically not counting the Paris Metro, the 10th train of our trip, this time headed for, what the heck, Antwerp.