I love Belgium. No doubt about it. It's my second time there, and after spending 2 days in Brugge (at the end of October), 2 days in Antwerp, and 3 days in Brussels, I must say it suits me. The land of chocolate, beer, waffles, and EU bureaucrats, I'd say all my personal interests are covered there. So that is why I love it, and that's why I spent a half week there. There is simply too much to write about, as I am a pretty efficient and no-holds-barred traveler, I get places, and see stuff. So I'll just pick some of my favorite pics and explain. First we'll start with Brussels, then I'll move on to Antwerp.
Pic number 1 is the Arc de Triomphie or Triomfboog depending on whether you're Walloon or Flemish. (Belgium is actually physically and politically divided into the Vlaamsche speaking north and the French speaking south; everything in Brussels. EVERYTHING is in 2 languages, streets, road signs, chocolate names, EVERYTHING). The Triomfboog is a massive, overly sized structure that you see from the end of Wetstraat. You see the green statues on top, and the shiny gold medallion from well over 2 kms away. Its quite cool because to get there, you have to walk through the entire EU superstructure--Council, Commission, Regions--and the eclectic robustness of all the buildings, they really evoke that Schumanplein is the center of Europe. The buildings are all glass, all massive, and invoke the sense of "So, this is the place that runs a continent?" Behind the Arc is Autoworld, with a special Volkswagen exhibit, and a National Belgian Military museum.
The next one is unique to Het Schelde Dal and one can only truly get it in Brussels. Its call Gueuze, Lambic, en Kriek. It's a "spontaneously fermented" beer that tastes like a mix between wine and beer. After some processing, it sits in a tub, where natural yeasts blow in from the countryside, ferment the mixture, and produce probably the most interesting beverage. At Cantillon, its the last place in the world that brews it to the real process---and takes up to at least 3 years to produce one cask of Lambic. When in Brussels, you have to drink Brussels. The last picture there was the by far the most interesting, intimidating, and awe-inspiring structures I have ever seen. It is the Paleis van Justitie and has more space in it than St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and is built where they used to hang people. It was started in 1866, and well, it still ain't finished. To say how awesome and mind-boggling this is is an understatement. You see it no matter where you're at, with that gold cap always telling you that justice is there.
You feel miniscule, and King Leopold's structure does quite that. All I can say here is that the eventual building killed its creator, as the architect who designed the place eventually went insane and committed suicide. I would never want to have to go there other than for tourist related activities, and found myself weirdly drawn to the building. I think it's just my Pitt-fixation with anything stone and tall! I must explain that, as a side because there's some space here, that the waffles and fries are awesome. They do something special here, and just a plain, suiker wafel is just tremendously delicious. There is a hint of maple syrup (but it's definitely NOT that). Going and getting about 2 lbs of double fried potatoes smothered in Belgium mayo is an act of unhealthfulness that I can say I indulged in. Was the cone of fries only 3 Euros? Yes; Was the cone the size of the Fiat's tire next to me? Yes; Did I see a paradox as I walked through the park eating my fries as kids did PE class next to me? Yes; But boy was I happy.
I love pulpits. I have not been in a kerk yet in Europe where the pulpit wasn't completely unreal. But the gothic themed St. Goedele Kathedraal was fantastic. The pulpit had a battle between heaven and hell, some random farm animals on the bottom, and a carved dark cherry stair case that mimicked climbing ivy and leaves. This one takes the cake though, because not only is it an entire story in one wooden masterpiece, but it was built on ancient Roman ruins. Also, this kerk was full of dead saints. Tooth here, skull fragment there, even though a lot were taken back from the Crusades, and a lot of blood and gore were flooding the streets of Palestine at that time, its neat to see it even if its some random guy's dead skin tissue in that golden tabernacle outlined in diamonds.
Next pic is Grotemarkt. It's Brussel's main civic square. And, as you can see, was just getting ready for Christmas. All the surrounding buildings are glittered with gold statues and ecclesiastical statues, and is one main destination for all of one's mains trysts. It is really nice to actually be able to guide by monuments in Brussels. Because there are these things called "hills" (heuvels) you can navigate without having to memorize concentric streets and grachten. The occasional visual is wondeful. Lastly, I must discuss my favorite let-down. The Manneken Pis. It is truly the one reason why people come to Brussels, and people flock to it like crazy. It is simply this, a small "cherub" looking figure who is urinating(What's the big deal? In Belgium there's an open bottle law, so public drunkenness is tolerated, and I saw many a people urinating in places that I could clearly see everything happening). The entire statue would fit into a shoe box, and Asian people love it. Luckily I was there to see him in a sombrero looking outfit, which made it kind of more enjoyable. All I can say is that there is a bar right by there that has the same figure, only inside with really great beer (De Poechenellekelder). Below are a few extra Brussel's pics, like before, too much to say, but a few pics can sum it up.
If Brussels is the place to work, then Antwerp is the place to reside. I personally find Antwerp to be perfect. It's not French-itized like Brussels, is solidly Belgian, and is old, a little less old, and really old in some respects. Once the financial capital of the world, it is now simply the diamond capital of the world. And if I had to choose, it would be my home. Brussels is too modern, Brugge too tiny and too far removed. But here are some sites I hope to see again.
My favorite gothic/Art Noveau building this point in my life is Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal. It's tall, pointy, and the outside is just plastered with all sorts of statues, skulls, and neat columns. The thing is the tallest building around, and besides having a really nice open space in front, has Henry Consciousplein right behind it (pic 3). It has this nice green tree that opens up into a sandstone style Spanish courtyard. It is a great place to trot through and listen to the guy on the guitar playing for beer money (last time I was there I watched him wrap up the night, then enter the bar right next door). Then there is Het Steen with its castlely figure. It is techically my second adventure around a castle in Europe, and it's always exhilarating to come up from it to see the big river on the other side. Pic 6 there is of Het Schilderstraat, or where they used to exclusively paint ships (hence the boat jutting out of the side of someone's house). It was so quiet on the Sunday we were there. Everyone was taking it easy, and with tourist season for Northern Europe finished, a leisurely stroll was all that was needed (besides the brisk jog to catch our train, which we caught with no more than 4 seconds to spare).
Of course, a trip to Antwerp would not be complete if you didn't go to 't Elfde Gebod, an ecclesiastically themed restaurant where you eat next to the Virgin Mary and sip your Koninck next to St. Peter. With a completely ivied exterior, literally 15 feet from Vrouwekathedraal and great Abdij brews on tap, you feel very medieval. The city is nothing but the 1300s all over again, and if the city looked as it did then (I would imagine the cement and stop lights are about all that have been added) I wouldn't of minded much. Of course I would of only lived to be about 35, but eh, enjoy life while you got it right? I mean the plague wasn't that bad......So I will say that I've been to the BENE of BENELUX (with LUX to come, I got to go for the trifecta at this point). And those two countries couldn't be better for me.
Though it shall be weird that I won't be spending my usual morning (3am-9am-ish) after Thanksgiving out bargain hunting and wrecking into donut shop signs, and of course, still be angry at people for putting up Christmas decorations so early, I don't have to go through that trouble here. Christmas decorations have been up solidly for about two weeks, though by American terms this is slightly troubling, as I would wonder if there are some Xmasophiles in the neighborhood. However, the Dutch "santa claus" is already in town, setting up shop, renting space, and filing the correct non-profit tax forms for his big giveaway and travels on December 5th. Yes people, Sinterklas is in town, and yes,he has all the kids excited and the kruidnoten en pepernoten spread around.
So at approximately 12 on Sunday he came. He came via boat, the Spanje, as the saying goes he sails in from Spain, and I said to my Spanish friend sitting next to me, "You know that your ancestors' expansive, imperialistic policies of the 16th Century are greatly allowing the Dutch people here to have a great time." Point noted. So he got off and spent some time perusing the Scheepvaart Museum which, I must say, would of been a great time to be an unexpecting tourist who gets a face full of a bearded man in a red robe. (I could of sworn it was still November?!). Seeing the sheer awe struck in the little kids' faces was great, they were all smiling, all yelling, and all decked out in their Zwarte Piet and ecclesiastical headgear. Then, about an hour and some crazy bass/techno Dutch beats later, the official parade came by. It had tractors, cookies, screaming kids, bands, people pretending to be helpers/slaves/Africans/chimney climbers/racists/Pieten depending on your ideological and anthropological viewpoint. These people wear satiny looking outfits from the 16th century with their faces blackened. They handed out the gingery kruidnoten and anise-flavored pepernoten by the bag full. All the kids just sat there with their hands out screaming," Piet!!!Piet!!! Kandij Piet!!!" And of course, the "Piet" would come on by with either a bag or butterfly net full of noten or candy to plop into their hands.
(To the left is a Pieten Band). These guys are everywhere and on everything. Bikes, bikes with 2 different sized wheels, wheelchairs, boats, mopeds, skates, carriages, horses, smartcars, firetrucks, their own feet, its like a caravan of nonstop helpers. Instead of the secretive, "north pole" style of our Santa, Sinterklas runs a pretty transparent operation in the stylish and warm vacation haven of Spain. He personally comes and scouts out the locale early to plan the most efficient routes, and with an ever-changing city, its helpful to be here early. Our guy comes once, spending no pre-planning time, and has a base of operations in the far-removed non-Schengen region of the North Pole.....Santa needs to sit in on a holiday idol lecture. Well anyways, after a parade that left the streets littered with Sinterklas vlaggen and all sorts of crushed cookies, though a lot made it into the mouths of hungry kids....I may or may not of had a few off the A'dam streets.....After this it was off to hear Sinterklas en Co. in Dam Square where it was a Pietfeest, full of blackened faces and Dutch Sinterklas songs that I just couldn't grasp. Everyone would be just standing around, talking, staring, and all of a sudden this music would come on and everyone would start bobbing up and down or waiving their hands for a short time. It was random holiday Dutch dancing, and my western Atlantic mind just couldn't quite get it. After some songs, some Piet dancing, and a speech by the burgermeester it was back to showing off Sinterklas's highly efficient and Pieten parade. (Unfortunately I could not at all capture any of this, as my camera decided to lose power, where's this wireless charging we've been promised?).
All the lights are up. Every street has its own theme. For the Dappermarkt it has wreaths and its own name, for Albert Cuypmarkt its diamond shaped icicles, the Kalverstraat has its presents and swirly wintry whisps, and the Negen straatjes has, well, a nine and a blue rectangle. Not winning any creativity awards there, but they're too the point, and I respect that. Typically it severely annoys me when people put up anything resembling holiday lights before December 1. But here is nice, especially on the straatjes down on Berenstraat and Nieuwespiegelstraat. They look gorgeous, and look like its raining artificial light from the middle of the streets. It brightens everything up, and is really itching at me to bring out the "I'll be Home for Christmas" by Sinatra (my favorite Christmas song, and coincidentally true). Taken out of the Christmasy context, the lights are very nice, and definitely make the whole Kalverstraat-toeristen things a little more bearable.
Believe it or not, this country isn't all flat. There are actually things resembling hills, and one of the most beautiful places to experience this at was on Texel Eiland. Its the beginning and southern most island of the Waddenzee island chain. It took an hour and twenty minute train ride and a quick stop in Den Helder to catch the ferry, but was so very worth it. The entire island has three very distinct geographies, from flat pasture with the Dutch sheep (a very common site), to hilly, sandy dunes (which are along the outside of the island, very helpful for navigation), and pure white sand beaches that stretch along the Nordzee. It is the most changing and quietest places I had ever been, and nothing beat biking through the national forest with only the stars and bike lights to guide you on the leaf-strewn path. Smelling the salty, and gloriously clean air was unique, and seeing a land that is endangered from climate change that might not be there in 20 years was especially heartening. I'd retire here too, so it looks like when I get into my 70s I'm going to have some major thinking to do.
Me and a few friends decided to take the day-trip, though we could of easily of made it into a weekend excursion. Upon arriving we set off from 't Horntje into the great beyond. We saw the "towns" of Den Burg, Den Hoorn, en Den Koog. I'd say Den Koog was the most intriguing. Everything is in either Dutch or German, and the houses are fantastic. It was dead when we got there, but a local, cheery bartender told us that the Germans love the spot. Because one must pay to use beaches in Germany or Denmark, and in the Netherlands it is free, they flock here like crazy to dig their holes. Also, it was quite interesting to walk among the dunes and see little plots of leveled land that were no bigger than a backyard shed. Apparently people rent these during spring and summer, and put up a little shed-like cabin to sleep in and use as a vacation/weekend getaway. The dunes are all-natural, and the island, besides the infrastructure, is left up to its own devices. No changing, no saving, no poldering, just an island and water. Because of these people's obsession with reclaiming land from the seas, it was very breathtaking and amazing to realize that I was only an hour away from A'dam.
This next event also merits extreme attention. Museumnacht 2011. With 45 museums participating with over 226 events, it was a night full of awesomeness. The museums opened at 630 and stayed open until the classy hour of 2am, with a bunch of after-parties and dance-events. (Thing to left is the lightbox that distinguished what was a museum--I was completely unaware that there were so many on my normal commute route!). This day was a five month day in waiting. I love museums, and with everything open and free on one day, I couldn't help but be overly joyed. By starting at the Scheepvart Museum with a fantastic light and sound show, it was a great way to start the night.
One would be surprised at the efficiency when you release me with 35,000 other museum-goers biking everywhere very quickly on tight itineraries. (Below is a slide show of that break-neck efficiency, but without degradation of the educational value!!!). Let's see, the Tattoo Museum was by far the best museum of the night, with all sorts of ancient artifacts, weird pictures, and the fact that they were having a hoe-down out back. Second place goes to the Scheepvart Museum. All I can say is: Aaron could never live on a ship but would love to do the woodworking. The bronze would go to the Hollandsche Schouwburg which used to be a theater, then turned into a Jewish deportation center in WWII. They new building is a museum, but the old bombed out one is behind, with a very moving garden and statue with wooden tulips. At one point you can stand on the 3rd floor, see the blueprints of the old theater, and look at the current stripped down shell of it. It was a night that was months in the making, and now, is a memory that I won't soon forget.