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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: Ghent

Europe 2011: Ghent

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

After two days in Antwerp, I took a train to Ghent. I stayed at Het Rommelwater and Renee had sent me directions and which station to disembark from. It was a short walk down the major road, where the street curved away. Like Holland, Belgium has many tall narrow buildings and I lugged my heavy suitcase up to the second floor. The room was a double (since renovations were underway outside of the single room), and had a little sitting area and table. Outside the room was a fridge, toaster and microwave for use by the guests. Like many guesthouses, there were maps and information on the city.

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A view from the belfort overlooking Ghent.

 

I probably could have taken a bus but I walked to the city center along one of the canals in about twenty minutes. The weather was excellent so I didn’t mind the walk and a chance to take pictures. It looked like Ghent was going through a major reconstruction of some of its oldest buildings, which included the  town hall, a mixture of several centuries’ architecture. Some places you cannot get into unless you take a tour so I signed up to see inside the stadhuis. I was the only non-Dutch speaker (Belgians speak French and/or Dutch but it’s called Flemish) so I ended up getting a private tour. This was awesome because I could ask all the questions I liked. The hall is a blend of gothic architecture at one end and the more plain 17th century architecture at the other. As buildings of civic fortitude it wasn’t magnificent but it was interesting. There was even a throne room, with red velvet, a canopy and some ostentation. Supposedly one of the round seats with a cushion on top actually hid a commode underneath.

After the stadhuis I went over to the belfort, constructed in the 1300s. It also was the old cloth hall and this part of Belgium was known for its linen, wool and especially its lace. From the guildhall you could go up the clock tower or belfry, which houses at least four floors including many bells, a giant music box tumbler that controls the carillon bells, and the metal skeleton of the last gilded dragon that adorns the steeple. I decided to walk up all the stairs, that’s 366 or so, although there is an elevator that goes part way up. I stopped in at each floor to read the displays and let myself breathe. At the very top you can lookout over the heads of gargoyle waterspouts in 360 degrees. I took the elevator down, then wandered about the streets.

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This medieval building had more modern whimsical statues.

I did go into Saint Bavo cathedral but after the churches of Holland and Antwerp I was a little oversaturated and it was pretty tame in comparison.  I found Het Gravensteen (meaning castle of the count), which was built in the 12th century. Unfortunately it was so late in the day that it was closed. The castle is not as large as a city block, though it looks impressive and has a tiny moat around it. I would have loved to see the inside as castles were few and far between in these areas. Still, the weather was lovely for wandering along the streets and canals.

When it came time for dinner, there were many restaurants lining the canals. Ghent was my biggest food fail of the whole trip, which included England and Holland. One place was canopied, looking a little better class than some of the other places, and had this variety of shellfish including whelks and cockles. I’d never tried these so I walked in and asked for a table. They told me to take a seat outside and a waiter would be by. As I perused the menu I saw that you received a selection of shellfish for about 35 euros, definitely not cheap. But I waited and waited and waited. I don’t know if there was a prejudice over serving a single person, I wasn’t dressed well enough or the waiter just couldn’t see me sitting there but after 15 minutes with no service I left.

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Ghent's canals are wider and fewer than those in Holland's cities.

The next place I chose didn’t work because the menu was almost all fried food. By the time I found a place to eat it was dark. I sat outside since the weather was still fairly mild and decided to try the eel, which I’ve only had as sushi before. The eel was cut in chunks and deep friend, rather tasteless and greasy. It came with a salad and mediocre fries, which is saying something for a country that prides itself on its frites.

I think the combination of all the construction around the cathedral and clock tower, the sad dining experience and some places being closed before I got to them, left me with little memory of Ghent. I was also coming down with a cold. The travel guide said you could do Belgium in two days (if you just hit the highlights) and Ghent could definitely be done in a day.

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These life size statues were in the bottom most level of the clocktower.

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Glasgow and the End of the Journey

Today is Canada Day and I’m off travelling out of town. So here is the last of my journey to Ireland and Scotland from Fall 2007.

Our last day in Glasgow started with the museum and then we went off to St. Mungo’s religious museum. Housed in the oldest standing building in Glasgow, it was a fairly bland exhibition and the building wasn’t that interesting. So we walked up the street and over to the Glasgow Cathedral, but it was late in the day and it turned out it closed at 4:00. The guy was really just locking up so he said you have five minutes.

I zoomed around taking pictures, without actually really looking at the place. The Cathedral is supposed to be one of the few gothic cathedrals in Scotland, especially one that is whole and still used. It was built in 1471 and really is a fine example of gothic architecture. I wished I’d had more time to actually look.

Ireland 2007–Glasgow

After that we tried to find our way back to Will and Erin’s. Unfortunately I’d forgotten their phone number. We also got lost because a helpful lady had told us what bus to catch back but it turned out there were two buses with the same name and a different ending, thus splitting and going varying routes. Which meant backtracking.

My sister was done. We had to walk about three blocks to catch another bus, after doing a partial return route. She thought we’d been walking for hours when it was less than ten minutes. 🙂 A very drunk Scotsman chatted with us (we had to catch a bus outside a pub, of course) and it turned out it was the other bus stop across the street from the pub. So he was a very drunk, yet helpful Scotsman.

So we finally made it back, with Will and Erin wondering what had happened to us. The next morning we flew out on Air Transat but not without issues. My sister had called them several times before she’d left and confirmed how many bags she could take on the plane, and on carry-on. She confirmed with the person on the phone and asked about leaving from Scotland. He confirmed with his supervisor that yes, she could take a bag and her camera bag as well.

Well, it turns out they have their own rules. My sister ended up paying overweight baggage because of it and was rightfully furious because she had to pack one bag into everything else. My recommendations: don’t fly Air Transat if you’re flying more than two hours. The seats are small even for someone 5’4″. If you need a special diet, they’ll lose it or muck it up badly. And someone travelling with you will probably get a special diet they didn’t order, as I did. They’ll tell you one thing and do another and not be the least helpful or apologetic for it. The seat selection (if you want to sit with the person you’re flying with) cost extra so that super cheap flight turns out not that cheap in the end.

Europe and Great Britain especially have tighter baggage allowances and the airline won’t always know what it is or get the info confused. The attendants on Air Transat were very nice and helpful but everything else convinced me I won’t be flying with them again.

At least the return trip was more pleasant. The plane wasn’t completely full so I went and chatted with this Scotsman, Ian MacIntosh who lived in Calgary. That way, my sister and I both had extra room.

Over all, Ireland was a great trip. The trip was from Sept. 26-Oct. 16. I want to go back and explore more of western Ireland and some of the south. I think I’d fly into Wales and then from Wales to the west of Ireland. Of course I’ll have to buy a camera again, but that’s a tale for tomorrow…

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Dungarvin, Lismore & the Benedictine Abbey, Ireland

Ireland 2007–Dungarvin, Lismore & the Benedictine Abbey

After Cashel, we went on to Dungarvin, a cute little coastal town in the south of Ireland. It was warm here and the accents on some people, like one fisherman, were very thick. We drove up to Bridie Dees (gaelic=Brighd ni Dige), with its colourful front of black and red and had a drink. There was a little fireplace at the back with a pot of coal and a shovel to take the chill off. I don’t even know if this place had any other type of heat but it was pleasant at this time of year. I believe we were on to Friday night by now, though I’ve lost track in this journey.

We asked the bartender if there were any B&Bs and he suggested a place two doors down. We called around a few places but they seemed to be a little more expensive and 40 Euros each was about our top limit. I couldn’t find the place (because he’d given me the name of another one) so when I went back in and asked he said he’d show me. As we exited the pub he held out his elbow for me to take and said he would be in trouble with his wife. It was very cute as all the bartender did was walk me down two doors to the next pub, which had rooms upstairs. There were many many stairs as this was more like a small hotel above a pub. I found that any place that has a pub underneath with a hotel above is less personal and more hotelly overall.

I carted my sister’s suitcase up the many stairs of the Tudor Arms so that it would minimize how many times her now sore knee would have to deal with them. I think we went back to Bridies and had another drink. I don’t remember at all where we ate but we went to another pub for a drink. There was this older farmer fellow (tweed jacket and cap, baggy worn corduroy trousers and wellies), pretty much the classic image of an Irish farmer. He  was barely decipherable because his accent was so thick and rolling. He bought us a drink and talked about Irish hospitality, which was about all we could understand. His name was Dan so we labelled him Dungarvin Dan.

We then went to another pub that had live music and listened to a group called the Rogues. They were rather good and played some fast paced music, so that I couldn’t stand it anymore and just got up and danced, by myself. They smiled and probably thought, look at the kooky foreign woman. I enjoyed it. Unfortunately they were out of CDs or I would have bought one. I toasted my friend in the US whose birthday it was by having a shot of Jamesons, which took they ciders I’d had and multiplied the alcohol content by three. I was a bit tipsy but still coherent.

The next day, Saturday we scooted out of Dungarvin, then went to Lismore but the castle is still occupied (and very spiff, overlooking the river) so we couldn’t go in. I walked up to the gates and peered in the keyhole where I saw this surreal image of four children. It was almost as if they were posed, at least one in a uniform, an old-fashioned pram, sitting or standing in tableau. That and the view from the river was all we saw since we were there in the off-season.

There was supposed to be an ancient abbey but either the lads thought it closed or they thought we meant the Benedictine abbey which was down a winding road but not in Lismore. It was all right but not particularly old but had the most amazing wizened monk who told us about St. Benedict and a few jokes besides. The little winding roads can take a long while at times and we meandered up and down the roads.

It was a pleasant and warm drive. Our next stop, Waterford.

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Limerick, Ireland

From my trip to Ireland in fall 2007.

We actually went to Limerick (in southwestern Ireland) before Cashel and near the end of the day. Which means we hit some rush hour traffic. Times for viewing castles, museums and other heritage sites change in October and we had brochures that gave different closure times. So we raced to King John’s castle in Limerick and then found out we were good and had an extra hour.

This was indeed an actual military castle (as opposed to Cashel’s ecclesiastical nature).  King John did use it for some of his wars and though it was very castle like, (like a fantasy or Disney version) it was also very sterile in looks and overall not as interesting to me as the gothic castles with their sculptural aspects and arches.

Because the castle was an English stronghold for a king, it was known as English town with Irish town being across the water of the River Shannon. The castle itself was completed in 1200, making it a medieval fortification that was kept upgraded from many centuries. It was on King’s Island and the fortification was  undermined in the 1700s in one of five battles.

There was a museum part to the castle below but I don’t remember much about it and like I said, overall the castle was so cleanly laid out as a rectangle that it was boring on some levels. The walls of course were extremely thick, some two feet or so. It took us an hour to stroll leisurely through the grounds and that was enough for King John’s castle. We left Limerick and moved on as that seemed to be the town’s highlight.

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Bunratty Castle, Ireland

After we left Ennis we made our way to Bunratty Castle, a huge tourist attraction in the town of Bunratty. It is owned by Shannon Heritage (the county I believe) and is in County Clare. Bunratty means at the bottom (or end) of the Ratty or Raite river.

To this point we had seen many castles, husks and shells of their former glory. Bunrattycastle was set up as a theme park with 19th century cottages outside the castle walls. Some  were little merchant areas and had food and other items that you could buy. We  could wander in and out of all the cottages. Bunratty also makes a mead but I didn’t get a chance to buy any. The park was quite large and we actually didn’t get through all of it as we were trying to make our way to Limerick afterwards.

Ireland 2007–Bunratty Castle

The castle itself was impressive for the work that’s been done in restoring it. It was the most interesting of all the castles in Ireland for various rooms and being able to finally visualize what a medieval castle would have looked like occupied. I’m used to I guess Hollywood movies where the castles look gigantic with long halls and wide spaces. In reality, none of these were gigantic. Donegal castle and Kinbane were probably the smallest.

With Bunratty there were four towers. Each tower held several rooms but you couldn’t necessarily get to all of them from the same floor. I believe this was part of the plan, should there be an attack. The marauders would have to run up and down a lot of narrow stairs (necessitating fighting one on one) to find the rooms. After we left the castle, I looked at a map again and realized I’d missed a few rooms, although I was sure I’d gone through all four towers and the staircases, but it was a maze.

The cottages were also interesting to venture into, each being set as if people still lived in them. They showed a sample of various trades with different styles in size and rooms. Usually they were one and two room cottages. One, I believe had a loft with beds for children. The castles as well as the cottages were whitewashed through time. The white washing, made from slaked lime and chalk, served several purposes. It gave a more appealing look to places, helped preserve the stone against the elements and add light where only torches and candles were used and expensive for many.  

One cottage was being re-thatched and the thatcher talked with us about what he was doing. A thatched roof can last 15-20 years depending on the weather. The dried straw is held down in place with reeds bent to make staples. The thatching is begun at the apex of the roof on boards and worked towards the bottom.

Next time I’d take a lot more time to see Bunratty castle and the rest of the village.

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Travel: Ennis, Ireland

Ireland 2007–Ennis

Ennis is in the southwest of Ireland and we stayed the night after our long drive through the Burren. Its Gaelic name is Inis. We found a little B&B a little farther out of the town center. All the Irish towns have the oldest buildings at the center and the newer more moderns ones the farther out you go. The streets were once built for carriages and are narrow. If there is any parking, people usually just drive up over the low curbs and you have to drive around the cars. This was true of Donegal town too. Ennis was set up as a one way, with the sidewalks widened and penant shaped streamers through the streets. There was some sort of game, the local team or something that was winning but I can’t remember what.

Rose Cottage, our B&B, wasn’t a cottage but had a small dining area as well as a wee pub downstairs with quite lovely and clean rooms upstairs. The food seemed kind of Americanized so we went into town and found one of few restaurants open. The food there was extremely good, one of those higher end restaurants. I believe it was called the Town Hall, denoting what it once used to be.

After dinner my sister and I wandered up the street to a cute little pub. There were people playing inside but as opposed to an organized band they were more just jamming. A fiddler or two, I think one on bodhran but it was very low key and background. I don’t even remember much about that pub.

The next day we wandered about the town, which still has many medieval buildings, and did some shopping. I think it was my favourite town for the looks and being just a pretty place. The streets all gently curved and the shops and pubs have an old feel. This town had the most medieval feel of the towns we had been in. There were many interesting shops and I wouldn’t have minded more time there. We found our way to the Ennis Friary by asking the Garda (the police) since we somehow couldn’t find a street that went through and it turns out there is the old friary, the ruins, and the new one, which is still in use. Of course we wanted the ruins.

Ennis Friary was built in 1240 making the town a religious center. It was a Franciscan center until the expulsion of the monks in the 1800s. It’s a fine example of gothic architecture, with remains of the cloister walk and many walls with the skeleton of the windows left. Some windows, side by side, would have a different design from one to the next. The floors were festooned with old tombs, leaving no space to walk that wasn’t over someone’s grave. I found that tombs older than about the 1700s were unreadable. Many were set in the walls and the O’Brians and MacMahons were families of note in the eiarly days of the friary.

The friary has some great sculptural images, with a monk, a skeletally thin Christ, and a virgin Mary as some of the plaques and such embedded in the walls. The Creagh tomb was large and ornate, in better condition but then it was put in, in 1840 and incorporated some elements from the 1500s. Overall, the friary was in good condition, for a ruin. I really wished these old churches still had the stained glass. It’s a bit hard to imagine what they would have looked like in their full glory, with the bright hues of glass, candles, wooden ceilings and floors, rushes perhaps, and walls not yet pitted by age and weather in rebellion.

When I get back to Ireland I want to spend more time in Ennis and exploring around the town.

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