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Traveling in Europe: Bruges

Europe 2011: Bruges

Clicking on the above picture will take you to the web album.

Bruges (Brugge) was by far my favorite of the three places, including Antwerp and Ghent, which I visited in Belgium. I actually took the tram or bus from Ghent to Bruges, a fairly short trip. The weather was perfect and quite warm and while I found the many brick buildings of Bruges and the canals to be particularly picturesque the smell wafting out of the sewers was fetid. Luckily, within a few feet the stink would dissipate.

I think I counted at least a dozen chocolate shops in the town center, but of course by the end of the day when I wanted to buy some I couldn’t find my way back or find any. I’m notoriously directionally challenged and old medieval lanes and streets tend to wend their way here and there and around buildings and canals. Given that, the area wasn’t large and I could always find my way back with a bit of exploration.

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Brugge canals have building buttressing the water and red trim to compliment the blue of the sky.

Belgium doesn’t have a museum/gallery pass like Holland does. However there was a day pass for several museums and galleries and even for a day trip it saved me money. It’s always good to ask at the train stations, tourist centers or the first gallery you go to (as I did in Brugge) if such a thing exists. My pass was for three days but at 15 Euros even for one day, I saved money.  Arenthuis is an 18th century mansion that housed contemporary art and works but the Bruges artist Frank Brangwyn. His paintings were bold and colorful and I quite enjoyed the style. He had also designed furniture and other items.

Bruggemuseum is actually a collection of historic buildings. I wandered into some of them and missed others. It was only one day after all and many things close at 5 pm including shops.  One of my favorites was the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a small chapel up on the second floor of a gothic building. It was beautiful both in simplicity and elaborateness. A gothic cathedral, it was small, with vaulted wood ceilings and every inch of wall and ceiling painted in patterns and colors. I loved it. It had such a great sense of peace as well. Somewhere, tucked away is a reliquary with an old rag supposedly covered in the blood of Christ.

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Details of the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Every inch of the interior was painted.

Because I will still battling travel ills and a cold I got started later in the day and wandered the streets, missing some of the historical buildings. In a way, after seeing so many churches over two weeks it was fine to miss a few. However, if I hadn’t needed to get to Brighton for the British Fantasy convention I would have stayed an extra day to explore Brugge longer.

By dusk I was trying to find a restaurant to eat at but they were tucked away on different streets so it took me a bit to find one. The place I entered was packed, with warm brick walls and a sweating owner trying to keep everyone seated. I don’t remember its name but I had begun to learn that the portions were quite large in Belgium so I ordered an appetizer and dessert, with a couple of glasses of wine. Beside me this couple had ordered mussels and the very large metal mixing bowl they threw their shells into was at least 16-20 inches across. My meal filled me nicely.

Brugges, Bruge, Belgium, history, travel, Flanders, medievalI was in Brugge at the end of September, as evidenced by the turning leaves with the weather at about 25-27 degrees, unusually warm for that time of year. The night came on early and I headed back to Ghent where I would leave for Calais the next day.

 

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Traveling in Europe: Den Bosch Part I–Canals & Countryside

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Den Bosch's ramparts and river served as a nearly impregnable fortress.

My last stop of four cities in Holland was Den Bosch. The full name is ‘s-Hertogenbosch and I think you have to be Dutch to pronounce it. Most people call it Den Bosch now and pronunciation seemed to differ between “den bos” and “den bosh”. Den Bosch is south of Utrecht and north of Eindhoven. It’s not large but considered a place to get away “to”. I probably would have missed it completely if it wasn’t that speculative writer and editor Jetse de Vries lives there and I emailed him to meet up.

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Boschenballen; worthy of making a stop in Den Bosch

Once I started reading about Den Bosch it sounded interesting enough that I stayed for two nights, couch surfing with Will. Jetse and I played a bit of tag at the train station, trying to find each other. Once we met I put my luggage in a locker and off we went to a cafe where Jetse introduced me to Den Bosch’s own claim to fame, the Boschenballen. If you’ve ever seen a profiterole (cream puff), imagine one bigger than your fist, covered in yummy dark chocolate and inflated with creamy goodness.  I wasn’t sure I could eat the whole thing (and shhh, but I’m allergic to dairy) but I took a bite and another and somehow managed to polish it off. I certainly didn’t need lunch till much later.

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A very larg cannon is housed in the structure atop the walls built in the 15th century.

By the 1500s it turns out Den Bosch was once the true mercantile center of Holland, with three rivers (Dommel, Aa and Maas) converging nearby. The Dutch are also masters of the water ways and trade came and went by land and water. It was second in population only to Utrecht. ‘S-Hertogenbosch means Duke’s Forest and the original Duke was Henry I, Duke of Brabant. Over the centuries, with fortifications increasing, Den Bosch was considered impregnable and nicknamed the Marsh Dragon. They had built a moat from the rivers and water ways; if invading forces came near, they flooded the lands around. Too deep to walk through and too shallow to put a ship on, the city’s defense’s held strong.

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To get over one of the many bodies of water, there is a hand crank raft to take people across.

That is, until 1629 when Frederik Hendrik of Orange, using Dutch ingenuity and a goodly portion of purloined coins from a Spanish armada, built a dyke around the city with windmills and then pumped out all of the water. He managed to break through the one weak spot in the wall’s defenses and then rebuilt that section making it stronger. The ramparts still stand and are integral to holding back the waters. Den Bosch is considered one of the better fortress cities in Holland. A nature reserve now borders one side of the town, giving great pastoral views and nature walks.

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The underground canal tours are lovely and a great way to see the city.

Jetse had booked a canal tour and Den Bosch’s canals are unique in Holland because they’re mostly covered, unlike the open canals elsewhere. While the tour was in Dutch, Jetse was able to tell me much about the rich history of this small town. It seems people were not allowed to build outside the wall and as the city became more crowded they actually built over the canals. At one point the city was going to pave over the canals but instead the government made it a protected townscape, preserving the historical ramparts and the canals.

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Boschian fun on the canal.

The weather was perfect in late September, around 25-27 degrees Celsius. The tour went under the city and then outside around the ramparts. It ended with ducking into a darkened alcove where they showed a short film on Hieronymus Bosch, the city’s most famous painted. The water level was relatively high so we really did have to duck. And along the canals were large sculptures of some of Bosch’s strange creations.

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Den Bosch's canals were very beautiful.

Even without understanding Dutch the tour was worth it for the sheer beauty and scenery. The following day I took a walk outside the city walls and got to see Den Bosch from afar. Of the cities I visited Den Bosch definitely felt the most pastoral, because of the flat fields and the winding river around it. In my next post I’ll talk more about the cathedral and other aspects but it was definitely worth the visit. I’ll also have the full album posted once Picassa stops being persnickety.

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Traveling in Europe: Delft in White and Blue

These posts on Europe will come sporadically as I have to digitally fix the photos for web viewing and it’s a busy season for me right now. To view my full album of Delft, click the first picture.

Europe 2011: Delft

After Amsterdam, I took a train to Delft. I was stunned at the thousands of bikes at the station. I doubt if you gathered all the bikes in Vancouver that it would even equal this number. People commute by bike and train a lot. Because there had been some confusion in email as to the dates I was staying at the B&B I ended up doing last-minute couch surfing for my first night. Robbert had just finished his university and was still in a student apartment. He was helpful in giving me directions to get to his place and the next day into Delft central. He tried to teach me some Dutch and pronunciations but some forms are so foreign in English I just had problems getting them to sound close.

Delft is small, when you’re looking at the medieval center. The next day I waited for the B&B owner to show. When she never did, I walked back to the tourist information center, always a good place to visit in any major city. Delft is small enough that they know of all the B&B’s. They tried calling both lines;when they couldn’t reach her they advised me to find someplace else. They ended up helping me find something in my price range (52 Euros) with someone who had just called in. (98 Plantages–not available through any sites) was run by Liesbeth and was beautiful, clean, updated and close by. Liesbeth was an excellent host, giving me some ideas of restaurants to try and directions into Den Haag.

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Delft's picturesque canals have lilies and waterfowl.

Delft was by far the prettiest town I visited in Holland, with Den Bosch a close second. The clean canals were picturesque with lily pads, swans and ducks. I even ran into a heron on the walkway beside one canal and got within two feet. The streets in the old town are cobblestone and shops line the streets. Delftware, that famous blue and white china, is not cheap but plentiful. I saw a guy on a scooter  where the front design was the Delft blue and white.

My first day after the screw-up with B&Bs left me with enough time to see the old and the new churches. (Throughout Holland and Belgium all shops close by 5. There is no evening shopping.) They were rather plain in the style of the no-fun Protestants who had pulled down statuary, removed paintings and white washed churches so that one would only concentrate on god’s glory, not on what humans had made. The one, ironic, concession to ostentation was the tomb of William of Orange, assassinated at the Prinsenhof (a convent he had taken over for a residence).

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William of Orange's tomb was so big that it was hard to photograph it all.

The Dutch started later than some countries in instituting royalty and pretty much voted in the best merchant. At least that’s what I could tell . William’s grand tomb is the central design of the church. Before this date the royal family was buried in Breda but it was still under Spanish rule, so they began putting the royals in Delft, where they are entombed to this day (the dead ones that is). I was beginning to think after Amsterdam’s two and Delft’s churches that I was getting churched out, partly because they were rather bland in a gothic cathedral sort of way. The focus became the pillars, the gothic arches (which are impressive) and the black floors, carved with names, dates, arms and symbols of those who had passed on before.  I wrote a rough set of poems here that I call triptych, after the style of religious paintings (that have three panels) used in many churches of the period. These will be polished at a later date.

I took in the Prinsenhof on my third day. The bullet hole in the wall from William’s assassination is framed and stands out. There are works of art such as paintings, sculptures, silverware and Delftware for which the Dutch are famous, plus the story of William’s life. I believe the new church, starkly plain had many partitions that told the story of the royal family from its beginning to its present day. Like England, they have had a queen since WWII (and before). But reading about all the royals and who killed who or succeed whom was mind numbing after a while. I just enjoyed walking along the canals of Delft and would definitely go back here.

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Traveling in Europe: Amsterdam Part II

To see my album of Amsterdam pictures, click on the first picture.

Europe 2011: Amsterdam
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One of Amsterdam's many canals

Amsterdam is one of the uber culture spots of Europe, thronging with people getting away for a weekend, going some place to party, or checking out the art. Through the couchsurfing site I realized how immersed gay culture is there (most of the hosts listed on the site were gay). But oddly I didn’t see a lot of gay men. You might wonder how I would know but I’ve been around a lot of gay people all my life, have friends of various persuasions and as a result have developed fairly good “gaydar.” But they were there somewhere.

There were a lot of people; those hanging out in the coffee shops, where you can smoke pot (but only in the shops, not on the streets), those there to see the historic sites, and those shopping. Shopping also includes the infamous, but shrinking red light district. Some cleanup action of Amsterdam’s council has shrunk the area over the years. I stumbled upon the edge of it and ironically, one side of the street was the oude kerk (old church) while the other held the large picture windows where the scantily clad girls all work. I was a little surprised that I didn’t see one white woman but then I might have been in the wrong “section.” I have no pictures of the windows because I believe it rude to gawk and photograph these women.

Amsterdam also has oodles of museums, such as a doorknob museum, maritime museum and an eyeglass museum. Because I’m one of those people who stick my nose close to a painting to figure out the uses of color and the type of brushstrokes, as well as reading all the details about the artist’s life or the history of the time, it takes me a lot longer to go through a museum or art gallery than your average Joe. I really look. It’s a combo of my art college background and my eye for details and textures.  So when those guidebooks say you can do three museums in a day, they’re not talking to me.

 

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An exterior detail of the Rijksmuseum.

I did hit the Rijksmuseum, a monster in and of itself. Almost all of it was surrounded by fencing and undergoing massive renovations. Only the section on the Dutch Masters was open, yet that took me three-four hours. Very few museums allow pictures, so that huge influx of historical art is only stored (somewhere) in my memory. I also took in the Van Gogh museum and this was one of the top three of my trip. I should also mention that getting Holland’s heritage pass (for about 44 Euros for a year) is well worth it for visiting museums and galleries. After three venues it saved me money.

The museum was extensive and detailed. There were write-ups on Van Gogh’s life, his influences, his work and his travels. We sometimes only know of the few oft-published paintings and that he was mad and cut off his ear, but he was much much more than that. He experimented in numerous styles including Chinese and Japanese. He studied art and kept trying different visions; landscapes, still lifes, people.  He copied the old masters and delved into the new ones, and he did it all in ten years. Ten years for a body of work that fills a museum. The show also included artworks by those who had influenced him and those he influenced. A truly amazing, well thought out homage to one of Holland’s more recent greats.

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Exterior detail of the Stedelijk.

I also went into the Stedelijk Museum, which has modern art and an interesting show on font design. I kind of zipped through it because I was more interested in the older styles of art, but it was quite extensive with everything from mixed media, film to functional design forms and poster art.

I also went to the oude and nieuwe kerks (old and new churches) each built over several centuries and gothic in design. The oude kerk was begun in 1250 and finished in the 1500s. The no-fun Protestants came along at some point and tore down statues and broke stained glassed, making the cathedrals very austere and cavernous. However, at the new church there was a retrospective art show of wedding gowns. Some were just historical gowns through the decades and others involved twirling dresses (with the figure blacked out) on TVs, a giant roll of white fabric representing a wedding train and a suspended gown with one wing torn off , in front of a tomb of a war hero (somehow I’ve lost these pictures). It actually worked because where do wedding dresses fit but in a church?

There is a street market that sells everything from cheese to cheesy hooker style clothes. Since my suitcase decided to die at the beginning of my trip I had to buy another and found a cheap one at the market, but being cheap it barely lasted the three weeks of my vacation. Old cities, like Amsterdam have enough going on that you could just walk around for three days and look at the architecture and design. For me the mass of people had me happy to leave after two days but I’d probably go back again, especially since the crowds were so long I couldn’t get into Anne Franck House.

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Traveling in Europe: Amsterdam

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Bikes are everywhere in Amsterdam

Amsterdam was a place of contradictions. It was large, in terms of things to see and do, and small in terms of area, though I still managed to walk a good seven hours one day, getting lost on the wrong side of canals. It was cosmopolitan but kind of dirty because of so many people, the sidewalks and streets sporting numerous stains and dead gum and just general grime. I find that cities of this size end up with the group mentality issue. Like mob mentality, this massive city entity is one of mindless automatons, people all trying to get to where they’re going, without willing to move or adapt or politely let someone by. I cannot stand crowds for this reason; not because there are a lot of people but because there are a lot of people being mindless and self-absorbed and not trying to work with the whole. Drives me nuts.

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One of Amsterdam’s trams

But…I maneuvered through the flight to the train and from the train station to the tram, even though the police gave me the wrong directions. There are plenty of trams and buses, and getting around is easy, as long as you watch out for bike lanes. I did blunder twice into a bike lane and nearly got smeared. Even so, the Dutch never swore at me (that I understood) and moved out of the way and I apologized profusely. Holland is the land of bicyclists, probably only second to China. At train and tram stations I saw thousands of bikes parked in racks. On the narrow, medieval cobblestoned streets there are often trams, cars, scooters, bikes and pedestrians. A sidewalk might exist and might also be very narrow. A painted line in most cases is all that separates the bike lane from the sidewalk or road. And sometimes you just have to scoot around a parked car or someone moving items in and out of a building.

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Dutch buildings are tall, narrow and lean

The buildings, ranging in years from four-five centuries to recent, are narrow and tall. The windows are likewise very high. It seems back in the 16-17th centuries people were taxed by the width of their houses so they built up. Of course they were probably taxed on width because the land was reclaimed foot by painstaking foot from the sea, and most of Holland is below sea level. In fact, if I ever wanted to build anything near or on water I would hire a Dutch hydraulic engineer; they’ve been doing this for centuries.

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A good example of fancy gabling and the hook for moving items in through windows.

As all the buildings are high and thin, it means there are many many narrow stairs, in fact too narrow to move furniture up. So they built hooks on the top end of the buildings by which to pulley items into the structure, and they’re still used to this day. Because of this way of moving furniture  the buildings indeed lean out into the streets,because a perfectly perpendicular building would have its windows and facade smashed in a move. The buildings have several different types of gables, (step, bottle, etc.) which were popular for distinction as well as design at the top window. Before street numbers, shops had plaques that differentiated them or what they did or sold.

And of course, everywhere there are canals. Before coming to Holland when I thought of canals I thought of Venice. How was I so ignorant? Holland is truly the land of canals, everywhere. Some areas have more than others but they are like the veins of the land. The land between the agricultural canals is called a polder and the Dutch manipulated every aspect of building below sea level. Not only do the canals provide irrigation, they also work as routes for delivery and transportation as well as being a way to maintain the land. Theywork as a bleed-off when the water levels rise and save many structures from flooding. Truly amazing when you think about it. Now days, sewage is not dumped directly into the canals and they are pleasant, with numerous boat tours or houseboats.

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One of many picturesque canals

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This building sat all by itself.

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These houseboats are often 100 years old.

The streets are a mixture of cobblestones and modern paving, just as the buildings go from modern to five centuries old. There is not grid in a medieval aged city as the streets grew organically out of the center. In this case the Amstel River played a role in forming Amsterdam’s streets, which horseshoe out. Wandering up and down these streets and canals and just looking at the buildings that people take for granted was as interesting to me as going into a historic cathedral or a museum. Canada’s oldest buildings might only be one and a half centuries old (especially the west coast), established by people moving into natural geographic areas and planning out their towns. The sheer age of European cities gives a much more organic and haphazard growth.

There is actually enough to talk about with Amsterdam that I’ll do a second post on some of the other historic aspects.

Europe 2011: Amsterdam

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What’s Good About the Dutch?

Dutch houses, canals, gables, history

The top of the house shape is called a gable and this hook is used to bring items in.

I’m on day 5-8 of my European adventure and I’ve learned far more about Dutch history than I ever knew before. Granted, there are still gaping holes, but I know a few things about art and history now.

My education started before I arrived with reading the guide books, probably written a few years before.  They were the Eyewitness guide to Amsterdam and the Lonely Planet guide to the Netherlands. I’ll review these books side by side later. However as I read through and forgot information the one thing that struck me was, “How could I have forgotten about the Dutch masters?” I didn’t really.

I mean, the local gallery had a show the year before (with more impressive silver work and glassware than I’ve seen yet in any of the galleries). Yet my front lobes seemed to backfire and I kinda forgot. So what is Holland known for historically? Surprisingly little of it is military. Let’s say that the great deeds of men killing each other do live on somewhat but it is the painter and writers, composers and jewellers and architects whose great works we go to see.

Holland was a great naval nation and that’s only natural when you battled back the sea to claim land and most of the country is below sea level. Flying over Holland the great canals and swathes of very flat land were visible. I never realized exactly how pervasive the canals are and even before I landed I knew the Dutch would be superior at dealing with anything to do with land and water. They’re perfect hydraulic engineers because they’ve been doing it for over 500 years.

This also gave rise to the tall narrow houses in various cities and especially Amsterdam. They were once taxed by the width of the house so people built up instead of out. Stairs are extremely steep and narrow, which means you can’t get furniture in through the door. All the old houses have a hook at the top of the house where a rope can be put through and then items that are too wide can be pulleyed up the floors. Which means, when you look at Amsterdam streets, that all the houses all tilt out and look crooked. They’re done this way on purpose so that heavy objects don’t bang into walls and break windows.

The Dutch were huge sea traders and had a huge part in bringing tobacco,

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Dutch canals are in every city. This is Delft.

chocolate and spices to Europe, not to mention being great silver smiths, painters and farmers. They’re a pretty helpful bunch and they really love their beer. Oh and there are those chocolate spreads and sprinkles to put on your toast in the morning.

They also love meet and I’ve never seen so many Argentinian restaurants as in Amsterdam. Meat, steak, meat. And beer. Wine is at a minimum and cider can be found but it takes hunting.

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