Thursday, July 11, 2013

Day 16 In Which We Are In Bruges, Which is Less like the Movie and More Like a Fairytale.

I have always wanted to go to Bruges. Well, always since I saw the movie In Bruges at least. It looked so much like a movie set (which it was, I guess), that I didn’t believe it was really like that. How could one place be so ridiculously picturesque? If there were a ‘Ridiculously Picturesque Village’ meme, Bruges would be in it. Did they plan it that way back in 13whatever or did it just sort of come together? They obviously planned the town as it follows your standard issue medieval village layout with the central square in the middle, and then a palace, huge cathedral, fort, and market all nearby, with skinny little streets radiating out from the centre. There’s a million of these towns across Europe but somehow Bruges is a bit different, but it is hard to figure out why. I think it is the scale of the place. There are huge cathedrals and towers, but most of the houses and buildings are miniature. It has an extensive canal network similar to many other European towns, but here they are narrow and full of ducklings and swans. All the streets are cobbled, and the place is hanging with roses and shrines to the Virgin Mary. There is even a priory that is still inhabited by 20 Sisters of the Benedictine Order who still wear the black and white robes. It’s like something out of The Sound of Music. Or Sister Act.

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We walked into town and the place got cuter by the second until we could hardly stand it, at which point we arrived at an ancient cathedral and wandered in to escape the heat. Even with all the restoration scaffolding that was up inside, we could see this was no ordinary cathedral. We paid our 1 Euro to enter, walked down to an appealing little side chapel where there was a statue by none other than Michaelangelo. It’s hard to find his work outside of Italy or places like the Louvre, but here it was in Bruges.

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The Virgin Mary was looking a bit disinterested I thought. Maybe she was just tired with the baby and all…bit of a handful really.

There were also a couple of very impressive tombs for some king or another…

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but was really impressive were the 12century tombs that had been discovered underneath these tombs during restoration work in the 70s

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This is taken looking down at the tombs, were they have placed a mirror strategically so you can see the old murals on the walls of the tomb. Looks pretty ancient to me…

We marveled at it all for a while and then went back out into the streets which were lined with chocolate, lace and beer shops. We wandered the alleys and streets, periodically dashing out of the way for a horse drawn buggy that would zip by.

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We later took one of these tours and it was really good as the horses practically gallop down the streets. The driver good-naturedly yells at pedestrians and they usually move, and if not, the driver pulls the horse up short and you get thrown around a little in your seat. Much better than the slow-boat-to-China horses we have in Victoria which are practically sleep-walking their way around.

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The square here is also fabulous. If you’ve seen In Bruges, you can’t help but look at it a little differently, especially the tower with 362 steps. Which we did not go up. I don’t do heights very well and would likely spend the whole time on all fours trying to get back down while waiting, terrified, to see my kids plunging past me as they leapt to their death. Which of course they wouldn’t do but it always feels like that’s what will happen.

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Hans photo-bombed my shot of the Jupiler brewery. He was obviously enjoying himself too.

Around the corner was another surprise – an 11th century Roman church that was so ornate as to be almost ridiculous.

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This is the pulpit (where the priest stands to conduct his sermon). It hangs off the wall like a huge baseball.

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It was our day as they were having a rare showing of a relic, which they claimed to be the blood of Jesus Christ. It looked like a glass tube about 6 inches long with ornate silver and gold decorations on either end. Inside, in some kind of liquid (formaldehyde? Vodka? Beer?) was what looked to be a chunk of bone marrow. We filed through up the stairs and past the relic, where a priest was solemnly sitting on watch, in case anyone tried to make off with it I guess. Actually, they didn’t come right out and *say* it was the blood of Christ. They were a bit vague really about the whole thing, but everyone was crossing themselves and looking very serious so I didn’t say a word. From across the church, the priest could be seen with his head bowed, looking down while everyone walked past. Jacob mentioned that it looked like he was texting. This struck me as so funny that it quickly became time to leave. I could at this point launch into an exchange of texts between the priest and his buddy but I will RESIST.

We were about to reach maximum capacity for old amazing buildings, so we went for ice cream, did a spot more shopping, and then wandered back to the train station. On the way we passed another huge cathedral that had this tiny red door…

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Spot the door…

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Last interesting fact – Bruges used to be on the ocean until the late 1800s, when the Belgians reclaimed 18 km of land. The ocean is now 18 km away and there is a town there called ZeeBrugge (Bruges on the Sea).

That actually may be my last interesting fact for this blog as we went back to the hotel, had dinner, packed, and went to bed in preparation for our long day of travel from Brussels to Montreal, where we get to wait for five hours, and then fly another six hours to Vancouver. They also changed the flight times just enough that we couldn’t take the last ferry home, so we will be staying in Vancouver for one night.

Stay tuned for one more blog (my Top Ten list for this trip) and then that’s a wrap for this trip.

Thanks for reading,



Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Day 15 (possibly?) in Which we Visit with Rembrandt, Leave Amsterdam and Arrive in Brussels Where it is AMAZING.

The Rijksmuseum (or State Museum) in Amsterdam has recently surfaced from 11 years of renovation (no comment) and put out a very creative promo for their grand reopening called Bringing Rembrandt to Life that is best described as some sort of Flash Art Mob. You can watch it here I of course forced the kids to watch it before we went to the gallery in the hopes that it would make the whole experience more interesting for them. Turns out I needn’t have worried as the museum is such a fascinating place that two hours flew by.

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We started with the ship models. Dutch ship builders in the 1600s were prolific and it was one of the cornerstones of their economy. A scaled, detailed model is built first for any ship that is commissioned, and then given as a gift to the owner of the ship. The museum has many of these models and they are so detailed and fantastic that I could hardly drag myself away.

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Every last detail of the riggings is intact with working pulleys. There are also cross sections of ships, and miniature models of the galley and living quarters. And the bit that gets me is that making these models was someone’s job. He or she just got on and did it. When we would ever have the time to do this sort of highly skilled creative work these days, I’m not sure.

Next up was the room devoted to Dutch drinking games. Seriously.

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As this silver cup was filled with wine, a tiny baby would float up inside the silver ball and appear as a way of announcing a successful birth. There were also many variations of today’s drinking games, and some new ones too. Seems like everything old is new again here.

We saw many wonderful works of art at the museum including this one, which I am pretty sure is of a family made up of the same person.

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Father: But surely you have not finished yet?

Artist: Yes just wrapped it up yesterday. You like?

Father: But it is the same person repeated over and over!

Artist: Yes well, zere ees a striking family resemblance

Father: You fool! I do not look like my wife! She does not look like me!

Artist: Of course not – zat is why I did ze hair different. And ze dress.

Father: Of course you did them differently! I am a man she is a woman!! Don’t insult me!

Artist: I can add some facial hair if you like sir. No charge of course.

Father: You will redo it! For no charge!

Artist: Um well I don’t really have ze time, Sir

Father: You will make ze time! And the dog! look at the dog! It looks exactly like my daughter!

Artist: How about eef I turn ze dog around so you cannot see ze face?

Father: Hmmm

Artist: And a hat on ze baby?

Father: well… alright. But what about the peacock my son is holding! Why is he holding a peacock? Please change it!

Artist: Ok ok I vill make eet into a cello. Is that ok?

Father: I suppose. Proceed with all haste!

I guess it’s like when you get good at one particular thing that you can draw. Like me and cats. I can draw an amazing stick cat and if someone told me I had to do the whole family, they would probably all look exactly the same too. And don’t be shy about asking if you would like me to draw your cat family.

We also hung out in the doll house room where this happy child could be found

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Perhaps her older brother had just told her to fuck off?

The museum is full of Dutch Masters and it’s hard to miss Rembrandt’s The Night Watch as it is massive – but it’s so impressive that it’s easy to get a bit lost in the characters depicted.

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And of course having seen them in the Mall in their natural surroundings made it that much better. (Go back and watch the youtube video now if you skipped it earlier…)

We could have stayed longer but we had a train to catch to Brussels, so we left reluctantly and made our way back to the Owl to get our luggage, and then to the station for our train. Zoe and I nearly missed the train as we had to run the entire length of the station from platform 2 to 15 after a bathroom break. We made it on the train but the carriage we were in was like a sauna. I was SO red in the face from the run and then the sauna that people were staring at me. I didn’t know it at first and then Zoe took a picture so I could see how ridiculous I looked. Yep.

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By the way, not sure if you know this but Holland is flat. Like there’s not even a speed bump anywhere. And there are lots of cute windmills.

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Belgium is also very flat and full of windmills, but Brussels is very different. It’s clearly a big city on an administrative mission as the EU and NATO both have their headquarters here. Our hotel (an Ibis – which I recommend as it’s pretty awesome) is right beside the main train station which, while lacking in quaintness, is very convenient and is also in a fascinating area made up almost entirely of North African immigrants with some Indians in the mix as well. It’s almost exclusively Muslim around here and I will just say that so far everyone has been exceedingly polite – stopping at busy intersections to wave us across and actually smiling at the same time.

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This supermarket was massive.

We were starving after all our travelling so we set off for the Grand Place or Central Square, which I remember going to when I was a teenager with my dad, and being impressed then.

We did get a tiny bit lost (like as in we went completely the wrong way) but that didn’t really matter as it just made it all the more interesting. We got back on track and found a square full of cafes and ate dinner. Jacob and my mum were both into the Belgium beers.

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I have always heard Belgium referred to as boring, including by our taxi driver in Amsterdam (of course) who referred to it as ‘Holland’s Basement’ and said it was only good for three things: Chocolate, Lace and Beer. Excuse me but  what could possibly be wrong with that? I didn’t want to say that Holland is only good for Bikes, Windmills and telling people to Fuck Off, because of course there is much more to the place and I shouldn’t judge a book by it’s first few chapters…

As we walked closer to the square, it became more and more apparent that Basement Guy was right – chocolate shop after beer shop after lace shop lined the streets in a very appealing fashion and they slowed our progress considerably.

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The streets got narrower and the chocolate–per-person ratio increased, and then we walked around a corner and into the Grand Place (which you must say with a French accent). Entering this square must be one of the all time great European experiences. Say what you like about Belgium, this square is fantastic. It’s huge, first of all, and is lined with the most beautiful buildings. I’m pretty sure all of them are palaces – I lost track after a while. The important thing is that the place is humming with life and filled with tourists and locals alike – government workers with their id tags around their necks were elbow to elbow with stunned travellers like myself who couldn’t quite believe what they are seeing.

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There isn’t really a way of doing it justice with my poor photographic skills, so I’ll stop here, but I will point out this upstairs restaurant which is,I think, the same one that I sat at with my Dad when I was about 14. Nice.

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The other thing Belgium is famous for are the waffles. They are to die for. Thick and chewy, and slathered in pretty much whatever you want. Zoe had milk chocolate and strawberries (which are fresh and sliced up right in front of you, just saying, BC Ferries.) Jacob went for caramel. They didn’t last long.

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And with that we were done for the night and took a taxi back to the hotel. The beds are exceptionally comfortable at this hotel and the rooms are almost completely soundproof which is important in Europe as people do insist on driving their two-stroke scooters up and down the narrow streets all hours of the night. I first experienced this years ago in Portugal when Jacob was just a baby and we stayed in one such hotel. Stayed, not slept. Those beautiful old  houses that line the cobble stone streets are always very appealing with their high ceilings and big old wooden doors and huge windows, but soundproof they are not, and every little sound from the street below always ricochets around the street before going like a bullet into your ear. This was not the case at the Ibis however and so we all slept like logs.

Last day in Europe tomorrow, which we spend in Bruges. Sigh.

Thanks for reading



Monday, July 8, 2013

Day Whatever Amsterdam – In Which I am Sworn at AGAIN, We Ride Bikes, and Cheer for Andy Murray

I originally had some big plans for today, but the effect of all my big plans over the past couple of weeks had tired us out, and we needed a day of rest. I had planned to take a tour out to the countryside and take in the Big Three of Dutch culture, namely windmills, cheese, and clogs. But as it turns out, there are windmills in the city, and actually only a few people still wear clogs and I think I have a pair in the basement somewhere, and nothing could top my Wensleydale Cheese experience, so we stayed in Amsterdam and rented bikes instead. Or at least Zoe and Jacob and I did, while my mum took herself off to the Van Gogh museum.

It seemed to take forever to get the bikes sorted, and once we did, there was no instruction or hints. In fact, the rental dude only spoke Spanish so it was more of a series of grunts and gestures than a conversation. So we found ourselves out on the cobbled street, adjusting seats etc, while a bemused Dutch woman looked on, latte in one hand and a huge bloodhound at her side.

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Me (conversationally): Tourists on bikes – Hah! We better watch ourselves!

Gerda (not smiling): It’s such a problem.

Me: Well, it just requires some getting used to.

Gerda: I see the bikes are green now. They used to be red. Everyone knows it is a tourist if they are on a coloured bike. It’s like Hey Watch Out for the Tourist!

Me: Yeah well…

Gerda: Most tourists don’t even know what they’re doing.

Me: Well I don’t know if that’s 100% tr…

Gerda: It’s like “hey I’m a tourist and I’m going to stop on the corner and wave my map around”

Me: Umm well there isn’t really anywhere else to stop so…

Gerda: or “Hey I’m a tourist and I’m going really slowly to annoy the Dutch”

Me: So we should go really fast and not  know where we are going. That sounds like it might be annoying too.

Gerda: It is best if you figure it out before you go.

Me: Well I guess if you don’t know your way around a city…Ever been to another city before? And Rotterdam doesn’t count.
No? I didn’t think so. Why leave Amsterdam?

Gerda: And never get stoned and ride your bike.

Me: Yes of course. Thanks for the tips. Zoe, the nice lady says to put out your joint.

Gerda: And beginners should stay out of the parks as there are lots of dogs who could get hit.

Me: You’ve been ever so helpful and kind. Maybe you could just complete the picture by telling me to Fuck Off?

Well it didn’t really end like that but it was close. And happily someone else told me to Fuck Off not too long after that. Apparently, the Dutch don’t like anyone else in their city but them. Which is too bad as the city sees nearly 16 million tourists a year. I’m willing to bet that directly or indirectly contributes a fair amount of pocket money to many of the residents of the city.

But not to let Gerda’s Sermon get in the way of our nice day, we rode out of there and managed perfectly well, thanks very much, Gerda, riding our bikes all the way to the lovely Vondelpark where I didn’t see any dogs get hit by bikes but I did see two Dutch people ride into each other. So there.

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Then we rode across town and past this fabulous windmill

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and then on to the Skinny Bridge, as it is known here, over the Amstel River, where we stopped for lunch.

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Our waiter was very nice and lunch was delicious. We were sitting watching the action when a man with a set of dreads the size of a small beaver dam hanging off the side of his head rode up on his bike. We and the group of Dutch people beside us both casually watched as he rode up to the corner we were sitting at and turned down the street. I went to smile at him as we made eye contact when he suddenly flipped me the bird and told me to, you guessed it,


I guess he was upset that we were all staring at him. I wanted to shout after him, “well take that Beaver Dam off the side of your head and no one will even notice you”. If I had a small primate stuck to my head I’m sure a few people might notice me too. Seriously the dude looked like he had been out in the forest for too long. There was probably an entire colony of bees living in there. All the buzzing probably made him grumpy. Or maybe Angry Bike Guy had just swatted at him with his stick. Or Maybe Grumpy Bike Lady had told him to stay away from her bloodhound after it made a beeline for the dude’s head.

Anyway, Beaver Dam Guy certainly became a topic of conversation at the café and makes for a good story, even if he did piss me off a little.

After lunch it was time to return the bikes, and find my mum. We made it back to the hotel just as the Wimbledon Men's’ Final was starting, providing the perfect opportunity to crash in the lounge with a cold drink. We had been following all the matches while in England so it was very exciting for us to see Andy Murray win. A nest of flying ants added to the excitement by hatching right in the middle of the room we were sitting it, but they were very polite about it and kept to themselves, and so we left them alone.

We went for a walk after dinner and saw this excellent item in the window of a store that imports all things British.

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I certainly didn’t see this in England or you can rest assured I would have bought it. We carried on and ended up in the Vondelpark again. It’s so peaceful and lovely there, yet there are tons of things to do and it is full of little cafes and ice creams stands tucked away.  ’m pretty sure there’s no evil Friends of Vondelpark Society putting the reins on anything and everything fun here. Just sayin’.

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This poster adorns the garbage bins through the park. The sign says “Is this bin full? then use the next one!” What is that thing though? I’d be scared to go anywhere near it if I had any garbage. It’s like a cross between Big Bird and Pinocchio. Not Good.

This sign showing the location of a tree house in the park was much better as someone had decorated it perfectly with Christmas stickers.

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Exhausted by now, we went back to to our great hotel where, I should add, everyone is super friendly and helpful, and were asleep before we knew it.

Last morning in Amsterdam tomorrow then we head to Belgium for a couple days before coming home.

Thanks for reading, and for not telling me to fuck off…