Archive for September, 2008

September 29th 2008

Posted under Belgium

We began our three-day stay in Bruges the way every respectable Belgian tourist should – by sampling the frites and beer. Our hostel was located close enough to the Grote Market (main square) to walk there but not nearly far enough to burn off the sauce-smothered, heart-attack-waiting-to-happen, deep-fried Heaven served up at the two competing frietkots (frite carts) on the square. Frites are big business in Belgium and the picturesque Grote Market, a magnet for locals and tourists alike, is prime frite-selling real estate. There is apparently an ongoing controversy among locals over which of the two frietkots is better. Interestingly, the eight square meters of cobblestones under the two trailers is auctioned off every three years so that often one or both frietkots are replaced by new ones and the debate starts all over again. Upon reading of this, we felt it our personal obligation to make our own determination. It’s a tough job…
With bellies full of salt, carbs, and grease and plenty of daylight left, we set out on a long walk around town. Bruges flourished as a port town around the 12th century, attracting increasing capital inflows as trading ships began to arrive from all over Europe. But around 1500, the Zwin channel that linked Bruges with the sea began silting up, gradually halting the city’s prosperity. It was not until the 1950s that Bruges reemerged as a tourist destination. The medieval city – often called the Venice of the North – is a dreamy place with colorful gabled houses, towering stone churches, cobblestone streets, lovely parks, quiet canals, and pretty old bridges. The canals are dazzling, particularly when they catch the hazy reflection of the cityscape, but Belgian architecture is Bruges’ most defining feature. We spent hours strolling in wonderment through the Grote Market (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the narrow cobbled streets lined with Belgian storybook houses.

On our second day in Bruges, we rented bicycles and cruised out of town, following a trail along a pretty tree-lined canal that led all the way to the sea. We didn’t make it that far though, stopping instead in the village of Damme. Parking the bikes in the small square, we wandered through the quaint, cozy village. The air was brisk and the sun was shining – it was a beautiful day! We sat outside at a restaurant that boasted over 100 kinds of pannekoeken (crepe-style pancakes), ordered some hot drinks and one each of the sweet and savory varieties of pancakes. Ladies and gentlemen, in addition to frites, chocolate, waffles, mussels, and beer, the Belgians do pancakes…well! Mine was so stuffed with fresh spinach that it resembled a burrito, smothered in cheese and cream sauce…the gluttony continues.

After a pleasant afternoon in Damme, we pedaled back to Bruges and rode around the refreshingly bicycle-friendly city – through grassy parks, painted with the colors of fall, and along picturesque canals – until our bike rental expired. Auto traffic in the inner city was minimal and it was nice to see people of all ages enjoying an afternoon on two wheels.

After a long bike ride, it feels great to stretch your legs with a walk. We ventured over to the Church of Our Lady, which houses the only one of Michelangelo’s masterpiece ever to leave Italy during his lifetime: the Madonna and Child. The sculpture was originally intended for a church altar in Italy but was purchased by a wealthy Belgian family and gifted to the Church of Our Lady. While we may have been “museumed out” from our adventures in Italy, we could not miss the opportunity to see a Michelangelo.

Our last day in Bruges, my 33rd birthday, was wonderfully uneventful. While our travel pace has been significantly more relaxed in Belgium than it was in Italy, we had still spent most of every day pounding the pavement. I wanted a day of rest and the cozy common room of our hostel provided a perfect place to hibernate with good books and free Wi-fi. When we finally did emerge in the afternoon, we meandered toward the canal and bought tickets for a canal boat ride. Unlike the Venice of Italy with its canals full of personal, municipal, gondola and commercial boat traffic, the canals in Bruges transport only small, motor-powered tourist boats. We had seen them everywhere – with tourists packed in like sardines – and it seemed like something we just had to do. Our boat was equally crowded and the thirty-minute ride seemed rushed but it did afford views of charming waterside homes and other historical gems that could not be seen from the street. The excursion was pleasant but I would have preferred a canoe.

With a strange celebratory energy in the air, we indulged in a round of overpriced beers in the Grote Market, which is decidedly most alluring at dusk when the dim streetlamps and fading daylight cast the stunning building facades in a soft, romantic glow. Walking through the square at this hour is like stepping back in time. The tour groups have dissipated, horse-drawn carriages pass by with the clippety-clop of metal horseshoes on cobblestones, and you can imagine the medieval square in its maritime glory. Just off the square was a lovely Greek restaurant, The Olive Tree, which we had spied earlier. We sat down for a quiet dinner and a relaxing conclusion to a perfect birthday.

Belgium was not a part of our original Europe itinerary but rather an afterthought that, by happenstance, became a week-long stay. Belgium’s charm is refreshingly unpretentious, likely a result of its proud beer-drinking culture. Every beer in Belgium is served in its own unique glass and any local can excitedly explain the difference among the three Chimays. The air is brisk but everyone is outside, bundled up in jackets and scarves, engrossed in good-spirited conversation over heavy food and big beers. It would be difficult to choose a favorite city of the three that we’ve seen. Brussels has such a festive multicultural energy; Antwerp is laid back and livable; and Bruges is one of the prettiest cities on the map. We love Belgium – the architecture, the people, the beer, and the food – but are somewhat relieved to be moving on from the ubiquitous and irresistible temptations of gluttony.


September 26th 2008

Posted under Italy

If you own a diamond, there is a greater than 80% chance that it was cut in Antwerp. Nicknamed Diamond City, Antwerp has 300 diamond-cutting workshops, 1500 diamond traders, and 4 of the world’s 25 diamond banks. But all of these are packed into an area of less than one square kilometer. The rest of Antwerp is a beautiful medieval city and vibrant university town. We liked it immediately.

Our hotel – one of the most comfortable of our trip and (unfortunately) priced accordingly – was located in the beautiful town square across from Antwerp’s magnificent gothic Cathedral of Our Lady. Its pretty church bells enchanted us throughout the day. Yes, we only had one day to explore Antwerp and were wishing we had more but that has been the recurring sentiment throughout our travels: there’s never enough time.

Since we overdosed on museums in Italy, we decided to do less museums and more aimless wandering in Belgium. The cool autumn air invigorated us to roam the streets, with their quaint, colorful 16th-century Guild Houses; stopping at leisure for frites, waffles and cold Belgian beers served in stemmed glasses. We are unapologetic winos on average but there is something so appealing about sitting on a sunny patio, bundled in jackets and scarves, sipping cold beers on a chilly afternoon. If we make it to 4:00 before happily indulging in our first cold one, we applaud our enormous restraint. That said, we must escape Belgium before our daily unadulterated gluttony expands our waistlines beyond the confines of our pants.

Antwerp’s most celebrated citizen is famed artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Rubens and his wife, Isabella, bought a house in Antwerp in 1610 and Rubens spent the following years enlarging and embellishing it, making it the most impressive early 17th-century home in Antwerp. Rubens’ house, with its diverse collection of art, is open to the public and we spent the better part of an hour wandering through the lavishly decorated living rooms, the artist’s studio, the portico, the pantheon of classical sculptures, and the ornamental garden. Rubens filled his home with works that he admired and from which he drew inspiration, including many still life paintings, portraits, and sculptures. Several of Rubens’ own work was displayed in the studio.

I have always loved seeing people’s homes. Regardless of size or decadence, a person’s home tells a lot about him. A home is a mini-museum of someone’s personality, full of trinkets and treasures with which that person has chosen to surround himself during the most private moments of his life. When I imagine our inevitable reintegration into American life, without a Big Texas house full of pretty things to come home to, I am warmed by the thought that whatever little place we find to call home in the near future will be filled with all of our special things: our sweet little dog; our warm, cozy bed (which we will NEVER take for granted again), our soft blankets, our kitchen stuff, and a LOT of travel photos! While we will surely welcome the return of our old, familiar things – which have hopefully fared well in their climate controlled storage unit in Texas – we take comfort in knowing that we can live happily with only the bare essentials. I have said many times throughout this journey that we feel quite at home on the road and I have meant it wholeheartedly. Our prolonged backpacking adventure has helped us to emotionally detach ourselves from our material possessions (excluding the dog). Home is where the heart is. We carry it with us and can unfold it anywhere with just a little love and creativity.

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September 24th 2008
Mussels in Brussels (and Beer, Chocolate, Waffles & Frites)

Posted under Belgium

Today was Dimanche Sans Voitures (Car-Free Sunday) in Brussels – the capital city of Europe. Cars and motorcycles were banned from driving in the city and all public transportation was free. The fall weather has definitely arrived…or perhaps we have finally arrived at the fall weather after a year-long perpetual summer. In any case, the change of season is refreshingly welcome. It’s football weather and it feels like home.

The Young family arrived in Brussels in an unusual state of unpreparedness. Our plans to visit our German friends had recently fallen through and, in our gluttonous two week love affair with Italy, we had neglected to make any plans or bookings beyond our two nights in Brussels. So now we were in beautiful Brussels with a red hot business agenda. It was time for some quick decisions. We hopped on a free tram to the city center, found a place with free Wi-Fi, and immersed ourselves in a cyber-tangle of planes, trains and automobiles until early afternoon.

When we finally reemerged, Car Free Sunday in Brussels was in full swing. Bicycles and pedestrians owned the cobblestone streets. Families pushed baby strollers and everyone from kids to senior citizens glided through town on two wheels. The whole multicultural, multilingual population of Brussels seemed to be outside, enjoying a sunny day in their pedestrian friendly city. It was a beautiful sight.

Belgium is known for several gastronomic delights: beer, chocolate, mussels, waffles, and French fries (“frites”) drenched in mayonnaise. Aaron’s first order of business was to obtain some frites, which he did at the first corner frites shop that we stumbled upon. The fresh-from-the-fryer frites were served in a paper cone, smothered in mayo and ketchup. As an aspiring spokesperson for the Association of People Who Hate Mayonnaise, I steered clear of the lard-soaked bites but the ketchup-only bites were divine.

We walked next into the Grand Place – Brussels’ historic market square – to discover a grand celebration that filled the square with music, beer and merriment. The Grand Place is one of the most beautiful public squares that we’ve ever seen. With magnificent 14th-17th century buildings in a variety of styles and lovely outdoor restaurant tables, the square seems both old and lively. The music and beer were deliciously tempting but we wanted to walk around a bit more before joining the revelry.

Leaving the square, we walked down an aromatic little street lined with Greek restaurants toward the Place St. Catherine and Brussels’ beautiful cathedral with its grand façade resembling Paris’ Notre Dame. It was Sunday afternoon and the church bells were ringing. We bought our first hot waffle from a waffle van and joined the locals in the small park in front of the cathedral, enjoying the medley of the church bells.

Our next stop was at a small bronze statue – Brussels’ beloved city mascot named Manneken Pis, a.k.a “the Piss Boy”. His likeness is everywhere – on postcards and replicas lining every souvenir shop window. Following the signs for Manneken Pis, we came upon a small square full of commotion. As it turns out, Piss boy has a wardrobe and it was time to change his clothes. A crowd had gathered around his fountain, including a group of cheery old men, dressed in garments identical to the Piss Boy’s, drinking beer, singing songs and pushing around a replica of the statue on a cart, making it “piss” on the shrieking onlookers and laughing all the way. While this was going on, one man was gingerly changing the Piss Boy’s clothes with the utmost love and affection, ruffling his bronze hair and pinching his nose. When the little statue was decked out in his new duds, he was hooked up to a beer keg and cheered on as his stream filled cup after cup with the local grain. What a spectacle!

The chill in the air and the energy in the streets had rallied us for a return to the Grand Place and the obligatory rounds of Belgian beer. The square was even more alive in the late afternoon hour. The outdoor restaurant tables were full and band with Santana-like sounds had taken to the stage. We enjoyed a couple of beers in the middle of the action – a fantastic spot for people-watching – and then moved on to restaurant row for more frites and steaming pots of mussels. Can this day get any better? we wondered, as we washed down the savory shellfish with cold beer.

On our way back to the hotel, with happy hearts and even happier round bellies, we suddenly heard classical music – loud classical music. Rounding the corner, we looked up to discover a man with a full DJ setup, spinning lively classical tunes from the top floor balcony of a vacant building in the middle of the city. A crowd had gathered on the street below, mesmerized by the melodies that filled the cool night air and resonated through the streets. Naturally we wondered, Is this guy going to get arrested for disturbing the peace? This can’t be legal. Then we read on a flyer that this performance was part of a free concert series – Le Concert Invisible – that this guy puts on at random locations around the city. Everyone loved it.

So this was Car Free Sunday in Brussels. We still don’t know whether or not the festivities were related to the green initiative. Either way, it was a glorious day!

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September 23rd 2008
The Venice of Italy

Posted under Italy

Dubai is touted as the Venice of the Middle East; Udaipur in India and Suzhou in China are each referred to as the Venice of the East; and St. Petersburg, Russia is known as the Venice of the North. We had finally descended upon the Venice of Italy, eager to unlock the secrets of its charm.

Meander through Venice in the morning and you will find the city still asleep, its tangle of narrow walkways, canals, arched bridges, and piazzas all but deserted. You’d be hard pressed to find an espresso bar open before ten. Morning in Venice is cool, quiet and peaceful. You feel a certain intimacy at this hour, as though you have the city all to yourself.

Walk through Venice at lunchtime, getting lost in the senseless maze as you follow your nose toward the tantalizing aromas of fresh baked pizzas, pastas and bread wafting through the lanes while trying not to succumb to the temptation of the gelato shops before lunch. The tranquility of morning has been trampled by a parade of tourists, moving through the narrow alleys like ants on a wall. Water taxis, ferries, and the quintessential Venetian gondolas maneuvered by burly, tattooed gondoliers in striped shirts navigate the canals. Almost everyone you pass is holding either a slice of pizza or a gelato cone. The outdoor cafes and fine restaurants are full of holidaymakers, indulging in three-course lunches and bottles of wine. Around every bend in Venice is a beautiful photo opportunity, especially the bridges where pretty painted buildings and the sparkling canals form stunning backdrops.

If you allow yourself a few hours of aimless wandering or if you (like all first-time visitors) get lost in the labyrinth despite your map, you will inevitably happen upon the two most marvelous and most famous places in Venice: the Grand Canal and Piazza San Marco. The Grand Canal is quite possibly the most beautiful street in the world. Snaking through the city in the shape of a backward letter “s”, the canal is the city’s lifeblood. It combines all of the best elements of Venice’s fairy tale perfection – stunning architecture in the form of more than a hundred 14th-18th century palaces; waterside restaurants; the picturesque Rialto bridge and, of course, the gondolas. The canal is also a major artery of commercial transportation. You cannot drive a car in this canal city; everything is by boat from the postal service and police patrol to passenger and commercial transport. The city seems to have been laid out by a hopeless romantic with no regard for practicality or pragmatism. From a logistical perspective, it makes no sense. From the perspective of a goggle-eyed aimless wanderer with no agenda and an appreciation for art, it makes all the sense in the world.

If the Grand Canal is Venice’s lifeblood, then the Piazza San Marco is its heart. Step into the vast, crowded, pigeon-infested square and your gaze will immediately center on the magnificent Basilica di San Marco. Venice’s cathedral – built on the plan of a Greek cross – showcases the Byzantine style in all of its glory with five bulbous domes and dazzling gold mosaics both inside and out. The dim, cavernous interior and the marble floor that has rippled over the centuries together create a dizzying effect. Across from the basilica, the top of the campanile affords a bird’s eye view of the piazza and the best panoramas of the city.

The rest of the Piazza San Marco is like a large pot, bubbling with activity. Two eighteenth-century cafes dot the square with elegant tables, their patrons entertained by lively, tuxedoed string quartets. The “music and service charge” at these lovely venues is six euro per person on top of your sixteen euro cocktail. Flocks of fat pigeons converge on every scrap of bread and pizza crust that hits the pavement while seagulls soar overhead, stalking pigeon prey. We happened to witness a dramatic kill that incited gasps from the startled pedestrians. Standing in the bustling Piazza San Marco, you get the odd yet comforting sensation of being in the center of the world.

Stroll the streets of Venice on a crisp fall evening and the city reveals its third personality. Restaurants are bathed in an alluring, incandescent glow and their warm interiors are a welcome respite from the chill. You feel inclined to sip wine and linger over dessert. Many of the restaurants elicit a cover charge per person on top of the price of your meal, which is decidedly annoying, but it’s Venice so you pay it, however grudgingly.

On our last night in Venice, my beautiful and gainfully employed little sister treated us to dinner at one of the expensive and pretentious restaurants on the Grand Canal in view of the Rialto Bridge. With the moonlight sparkling on the water, we savored juicy Chianti over courses of meat, seafood and pasta. It was the perfect exclamation point to Venice, where we indulged in more gastronomic tourism than any other kind.

The truth is that the magic of Venice is no hidden secret. At first glimpse, the glimpse you get while lugging your bags through the picturesque streets and across the Grand Canal to your hotel, you instantly understand Venice’s rightful place in art and literature. Ever looked at a beautiful painting in a museum and imagined yourself folded into the scene? Venice is that scene – around every turn is a painting – and walking through paintings is a surreal experience. It is no wonder that so many cities want to be Venice. After three amazing days in the senseless labyrinthine canal city that somehow makes perfect sense, I know one thing to be true: There is no Venice like the Venice of Italy!


September 22nd 2008
Drama Bolognese

Posted under Italy

Over the many months of this adventure, I have written occasionally about our experiences in the hostel world. In our attempt to travel so long and far, we have mostly restricted ourselves to youth hostels and budget hotels. To borrow a line from Forrest Gump’s mama, “Hostels are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

After a long, wonderful day in Pisa and Cinque Terre, we arrived at our hostel in Bologna around nine p.m. There seemed to be some confusion regarding our reservation though we were never made privy to it as we stood patiently listening to the two clerks banter in Italian. When we finally received our keys – one for a men’s dorm and one for a women’s dorm – the clerk informed us that our rooms were in the other hostel just two hundred meters down the road. After some frustrated wandering in the dark, we found the “other hostel” and carried our load up to the second floor. I tried our Room 303 key in the 303 lock but the door would not open. I tried again. Natty tried while I stood aside, cursing under my breath. Finally, we summoned Aaron who confirmed that our key would not open 303 and then randomly discovered that our key would open neighboring 301. Hesitantly, we peered inside to find and empty room with three naked beds. With no hostel staff to be found in this “other” building and no phones, we agreed that it was too cumbersome, too late, and too cold to go back for a new key. We collectively decided that Nat and I would set up camp in 301 in hope that we would have the room all to ourselves.

By ten p.m., we had made up our beds, showered and settled in. A brisk fall chill had swept through the whole building and, as I opened the wardrobe doors to look for heavy blankets, I discovered a pile of possessions behind door number two: leather jacket, white collared shirt, camouflage dob kit, some miscellaneous articles of clothing, and a large metal wrench! The items clearly belonged to a man and our heads began spinning with paranoid ideas of a crazy wrench murder with a key to our room. Why would a backpacker need a wrench?

After Nat and I had catalyzed each other’s fears into a paranoid frenzy, I knocked on Aaron’s door across the hall to warn him that by morning, he might possibly be a widower. He thought we were being melodramatic but gave us the key to his room and told us to come in if anyone suspicious entered our room in the middle of the night. We could re-evaluate the situation then.

We were fast asleep in our cozy beds when, at one a.m., we heard a key clinking in the lock. I pulled the covers up to my nose and pretended to be asleep meanwhile spying in the dark as the young male latecomer tiptoed around, trying to organize his things and make his bed in the dark. I kept my eyes on the area around Natty’s bed. If he raised a wrench, I would leap out and scream bloody murder before he had time to strike. I sensed that Natty was awake and playing possum as well. As it turned out, he never raised the wrench but rather stripped down to his skivvies and crawled into bed. My heart finally stopped racing after another half hour and I drifted back to sleep.

At four a.m., I woke again to the sound of a key in our lock, followed by the horrid stench of stale cigarette smoke. Two male backpackers, who had obviously been assigned to the two beds in 301 that Nat and I were occupying, opened the door (at four a.m.!) to find all the beds full. Nat and I lay perfectly still, pretending to sleep, waiting to see what they would do. They stood in the doorway laughing for a few minutes and then left. We heard them talking and laughing outside the door for a while and then they were gone. I felt bad for them but I was too cozy under my warm blanket to be a Good Samaritan. There were no further disturbances after that. Natty and I both popped up before our alarm went off, packed up quickly and quietly, and got out of there.

We met Aaron in the hallway at the designated time, loaded the car, and laughed over breakfast at our crazy night in the hostel dorm. Natty has been officially initiated into the hostel world.

We spent the first half of the day walking around Bologna – the food capital of Italy. The few hours that we spent wandering through the city’s endless porticos and quaint university quarter were enough for all of us. Not surprisingly, the most memorable part of the day was the decadent lunch that we shared in a little “Mom and Pop” establishment with checkered tablecloths. The long walk and steaming plates of fresh made pastas in rich, meaty “Bolognese” sauce helped to soothe our nerves and lure our thoughts away from psycho wrench murderers. By the last bite of tiramisu, all seemed right in the world again.

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