Monday, August 3, 2015

Museums and Windmills

It's a dry and mild day in Haarlem in the Netherlands.   Right after breakfast we visited the Grote Kerk.   We thought they might be having a Sunday service, but when we went inside, we heard the sounds of clanking coffee cups and noticed it must be fellowship hour for church members.  The Grote Kerk  was built between 1390-1540 . There's a magnificent pipe organ made of mahogany wood with tin pipes that's three stories tall. Mozart played here when he was only 10 years old.  Outside the church are tiny shops tucked into the walls. These were placed here to bring in money for the church.

The V&D department store is known for its panoramic view from the cafe on the top floor. We decided to check it put and discovered a market style cafe with farm fresh salads, fruits, and appealing fruit juices in glass containers with fresh fruit inside.

Our first museum of the day was the Frans Hals Museum. We learned there are not a lot of historic records about his early life, but it is believed that he was born the 16th century in Antwerp. Fran's Hals painted three types of portraits: groups, individual dignitaries, and less fortunates. We saw restoration in progress of one large painting. A woman was meticulously removing varnish with two inch by two inch squares.  They believe that earlier attempts to restore the paintings caused damage to the colors. Lunch was in the outdoor garden. I couldn't read the Dutch  menu so took a chance and ordered Hippy veggie toasty. It was a toasted sandwich with grilled zucchini and eggplant layered on top of humus. It was delicious.

Our second museum of the day was Teylers Museum. It is a museum of Mr. Teylers  personal collection which included gemstones, fossils, cave bear skeletons, scientific instruments,  paintings, shells, and coins all labeled by hand in perfect calligraphy. A special exhibit featured the history of music players from phonographs to CD players. At the end, they pointed out that even though people no longer need their music recorded and played on an actual music player, music is everywhere in the Internet world. 

Our map showed a windmill museum just down the road along the canal. We got there just as public tours were closing, but a kind woman agreed to give us a private tour. We learned about the technology behind windmills as well as their purpose in the Netherlands today.  Dave asked our guide if she has heard of Rick Steves, Much to our surprise she said, " Yes. A Rick Steves' tour will be here in 15 minutes."  Rick's tours often start here in Haarlem and we both agreed that if you are planning a European tour, Haarlem is a great place to begin your journey.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Exploring More of the Low Countries

The best way to start a summer morning on a Belgian holiday is with homemade Belgian waffles. Ours at the hotel came hot off the waffle iron dusted with powdered sugar with a side of ripe juicy strawberries.

We took the intercity train to Antwerp. We had the coach almost to ourselves until a young mother sat down with her two preschool age boys and her toddler son. While the two boys sat quietly looking at TinTin books, a sudden shout went up from the passengers. . While tapping on her cell phone, the mother failed to notice that at one of the stops the toddler had run off and was headed right out the door. Thankfully someone was able to grab him

Haarlem, Netherlands is beautiful. The people here are very fit, but it could be that riding a bike for all ages is part of the culture and not a Tour de France outfit in sight. We have also noticed that no one uses a bike lock. 

There are gabled brick houses everywhere near our hotel. We explored a quiet cobblestone residential street and were surprisd at how peaceful it was when it's actually next door to a thriving business area with a lot of shops,  We are Nespresso coffee drinkers and in front of a Nespresso shop, a smartly dressed man was playing a saxophone. We ended up inside where a party was taking place complete with caterers to celebrate the opening day.

Tonight we walked around town and down to the Fran's Hall Museum in an elegant neighborhood. I loved looking at the tiny boats in the canal as we headed back to our accommodation, Right now it's 10:15, but we are so far north, it is not quite dark yet. Outside our window people are enjoying the ambiance. European holiday has begun!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Living City of Gent

The sun was brightly shining when we woke up this morning- the perfect day for a canal boat ride.  The flat bottom wooden boats glide silently along the Leie and Shelde Rivers past canal houses with gabled roofs and low hanging willow trees that brush  the water's edge. As we glided along we could hear the city bustling with life: small ensemble bands, trolley cars clanging their bells, and the clip clop of horses hooves on the cobblestone streets. 

We rode the modern sleek trolley to the Fine Arts Museum where we saw paintings by Brueghal the Younger, Rubens,  and Jan Van Eyck. They were restoring several church altarpiece paintings in one room using technology to analyze the original paint colors and artistic techniques.

In the courtyard was an excellent cafe  with a newly trained chef. We had mussels and salad.  The chef even brews his own beer using a combination of Belgian beer and India Pale Ale (IPA).  

The City Museum or STAM, traces the history of Gent from Medieval times to the modern vibrant city it is today. Part of it is housed in a 15th century Abby reconstructed in the 1920's. There were two especially interesting exhibits. One was a multi-media presentation showing changes over time in Gent. Covering the floor was a satellite- google maps type image of the entire town. A second interesting display followed the mystery of the theft of one of the panels Just Judges from the world famous altarpiece  by Van Eyck we had seen yesterday in Bavos Cathedral.  Apparently in the 1930's a mysterious person with the initials DUA led the town on a wild goose chase to find the painting, but it has never been found.

One room contained old artifacts from the 50's and 60's. In a glass case in the middle of the room was a View Master. I discovered if I crouched down low, almost to the floor,  i could look through it. Apparently they must have CCTY. A security guard dashed into the room, but left with a sheepish grin when he heard me talking about the photo of the town I could see through the lens.

Throughout Gent this summer there's a photography exhibition called 80 Days of Summer. Today's exhibit featured large portraits of albino children. I thought about a display I saw yesterday featuring people with deformities. I thought it was troubling at the time, but I have now come to the conclusion that the photographers want to portray that all people regardless of their appearance, share a common humanity.

Tonight we walked around town. With European vacation starting the town is alive with people. Down by the canal at 10:00 pm,  people were renting kayaks with torches attached to the back which looked really pretty in the dark. Tomorrow we head to Amsterdam.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Exploring Gent

It was a cool blustery day here in Gent, Belgium with occasional showers so with our Gent passes in hand, we set out to explore the city's museums.

Just outside what was once the old city lies a nicely restored castle from the 12th century. There's not a lot to see inside, but it was fun to walk on the stone walls of the castle overlooking the city. The castle houses a torture museum. For those with ghoulish curiosity, it would be interesting and informative, but I only gave it a quick walk through. Above each instrument was a print from long ago showing how it was used. I scurried out of that room in a hurry. In another room was a powerful and moving black and white photo exhibition called Departures showing the faces of people at the end of their life with their story. While not uplifting, it was well done.

Our next stop was the Design Museum featuring art nouveau and Art Deco. A special exhibition featured chairs created by the Danish designer Arne Jacobson. The chairs had a sleek simplistic design. We first saw his work two years ago when we visited a hotel in Copenhagen where my parents stayed in 1963. Today the hotel has the wonderful quality of being caught In a time warp. Upstairs in the museum were rooms from the early 1900s with period furniture. When created they had elements of the new while paying homage to the old traditions.

Late in the afternoon we visited two churches. The Church of St. Nicholas had an enormous drum type music wheel from 1659. We watched it play the bells heard throughout the city every hour.

The highlight to any trip to Gent is a visit to St. Bravos Cathedral to see the magnificent altarpiece Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. It was painted by the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck and his brother Hubert in the 15th century. It was the first church painting to show people as they really are rather than angels with wings. The colors are stunning. It was the first art work of note done using oil paint. While we were in the church, the organist was practicing for a concert. I love organ concerts and find them very moving.

Dinner tonight was at Balls and Glory. They feature salads and creative meatballs or veggie balls. I had a delicious salad with mint and couscous. We spent some time strolling the streets along the canals. With the city lit up against a backdrop of a full moon, all cameras were aimed at the skyline as we headed back to our room, the end of a perfect day.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Setting Off On Our 2015 Euro Adventure

Trains, planes, and taxis. It's been a long journey through Dublin and Amsterdam, but we have arrived in the historic town of Gent, Belgium at last.

Our flight into Dublin was easy, but our continuing flight to Amsterdam had a layover of five hours. This is unusual for Aer Lingus and not what we originally booked, but the airline was concerned we wouldn't arrive in time to meet the early connecting flight and changed the departure time. After many laps around the international concourse to stay awake, the rest of our trip which included the high speed Thalys was easy.

After a short nap, we explored the old town. The historic sites were not open so late in the day, but we wandered the side streets and admired the architectural nuggets. Beautifully restored canal houses line the canal in front of our hotel and tall stone church bell towers reach for the sky. Our hotel room is on the third floor with a balcony overlooking the canals.

We learned that a large festival just ended in Gent and it seems as if some of the restaurant owners took the week off in preparation for European holiday which begins this weekend. Following our Rick Steves' guide we wound our way through alleys only to find each restaurant was closed. We spotted an atmospheric restaurant called Cafe Amadeus which turned out to be a lot of fun. Inside we felt as if we were in a building from the early 20th century which included many art nouveau items such as mirrors, chandeliers, and stained glass. The restaurant's specialty much to our surprise was spare ribs and baked potatoes with curry which were really tasty.

The town is quiet now, but we can see the lights from our room. We'll spend tomorrow exploring the museums and churches.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Aix en Provence- It's like a Holiday Inside a Painting

Aix en Provence is a fun and lively city. It is a place where you can make time slow down or a place where you can enjoy an air of sophistication. We have had a lot of fun today just exploring this amazing place on foot.

The Cathedrale Saint Sauver was built in the 12th century. Inside it appeared they were doing some restoration. There was evidence of excavations from most likely Roman times, and if you looked closely, there were pieces of frescos painted in some of the chapels. Sadly the plaster breaks away over time, but it's like looking at a puzzle sometimes and is fun to guess what might have been painted there. There might be a head or a hand peeking out.

The cobblestone streets wind through the old town and vary from one to another. Some have no commercial development and look the same as they probably did 200 years ago while others have fancy shops such as Rolex, but none of them present themselves with any form of glitz. Everything blends in well and is tastefully done.

The Belfy was built in 1510 and when it rings we can see the bell swinging. An astronomical clock was added in the 1600s. Everywhere you look in the town there are fountains and people just enjoying sitting beside them. There are fountains with stone dolphins, fountains covered with moss, and others that even have fish. There are no skyscrapers in the old town and many of the houses have ancient wooden shutters, iron rails over the window, and flower boxes bursting with blooms. It's all very pleasant.

Just around the corner from our hotel, Hotel Du Globe, there is a small museum in an old mansion. The nice thing about it is you can just enjoy the gardens for free. A lot of people were there reading, relaxing, having a picnic, ot writing postcards. Inthe fountain there were goldfish and bigger looking carp, but no turtles.

Dinner tonight was in a restaurant with an outside courtyard. We love how in the evenings here the streets suddenly come alive with cafes with candles on each table. The most lively ones are on Cours Miraeau where one cafe boasts that Picasso dined there. It's very appealing if you are willing to pay $12 for the same glacé (ice cream) that is sold on the atmospheric back streets for $4. On the other side of Cour Mireau they were having an evening craft fair with crafts ranging from lavender to jewelry. There was even a potter's wheel to try and beaded jewelry you can make. This is the perfect town in France. Aix en Provemce- it's like taking your holiday inside a painting!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Charming Aix en Provence

Due to a rail strike, our journey from Arles to Aix en Provence that should have been 90 minutes took five hours, but we made it here and are already loving the friendly upbeat vibe.

Since our train from Arles wasn't leaving untill 1:00, we had some time to see more of the town. In the main plaza at the cathedral, a man was entertaining the crowd playing the trumpet while small children danced in front of him. Even a few couples joined in the merriment of the moment.

We spent some time looking closely at the carvings on the front of the church which is a UNESCO World Heritage sight. We tried to imagine what it must have been like for the artists who did this work. The folds in the robes look real and the eyes of the figures look as if they are looking at you.

The figures in the photo below depict what can happen to those who did not follow the teachings of the church. They are in chains on their way to Hell.

Our train for Aix en Provence was supposed to leave at 1:00, but the board said it was delayed by first 10, then 20 minutes. Because of an intermittent rail strike this holiday weekend, 20 minutes turned into 2.5 hours. We were on the platform waiting with a French family. Each time a delay was announced in French only, we knew it was bad news by the looks on their faces, but they spoke no English and the schedule board was not working so we had to trust that as long as they stayed, the train would come eventually. When they finally announced the train would arrive, we knew the good news when a teenage boy in their family brightly smiled, wiped his brow, and said "Phew!"

After another transfer and layover we finally made it. The Hotel Du Globe where we are staying is centrally located and inexpensive. It was recommended by the NY Times who said it would never win a design award, but is clean and tidy. We ate dinner at a pizzeria and just had fun walking around town. I'll describe the town in detail tomorrow. Meanwhile enjoy our first photos of Aix en Provence.