30 December 2014

Half A Day, A Whole City

After visiting the Atomium, I headed directly to Gent. I had wanted to spend more time there, but the reality was that this was my last full day in Belgium and I just didn't have the time unless I split the day as I did. That being said, I ended up on the slow train from Brussels and further shortened my visit by accident. Being on the slower train, I did get to see more of the country side and a number of smaller towns. 

Arriving in Gent, I headed straight to the tourist office for a map and information about a city tour. I had found online that there was to be one at 4pm, but I also knew the website was dated and was not sure if the information was accurate. In the Gent tourist office for the first time, someone in Belgium actually chose to speak to me in German rather than English. She told me that there were no more tours today but gave me a map with a self guided tour. All of the information I have about the city came from that map. As a disclaimer, because my map is in German, it is possible that I will not know  the common English name of an edifice, but I will do my best!

The Gent tourist office is located in the former fish market, which opened in 1689. This structure is extremely unique as it is topped by a figure of Neptune.

Across from the former fish market is the Gravensteen (Grafenburg) castle. This castle was currently under renovation but was still admitting tourists within. Had I time, I would have visited the interior.

I walked through town and around the canals. Like Brugge it is possible to take a boat ride on the canals, but today I chose to go by foot. I arrived in an area of the canal flanked on either side by two streets: Korenlei and Graslei. Dating back to the 11th century, this was the site of the first trade harbor in Gent. Today this area is flanked by gorgeous buildings, many guide books call this the most beautiful city view in all of Europe. They may be right.

From there I walked over the St. Michael's Bridge, past the St. Michaels and St. Nicholas churches and to the Emile Braun square. This area was filled with the stalls of the Christmas market and alive with scents and sounds. The Gent market was unique in the fact that many of the vendors were offering samples. I was able to try a number of different cheeses as well as some nougat. Some of the cheeses were so creamy and amazing. It was a really nice market and had some items that were quite unique compared to what I had seen in Brussels, Antwerp and Brugge.

Gent is a city where one must look up, down and all around - not just straight ahead. This house on the St. NIklaas street for example is topped with 6 dancing devils, called in German "die Moriskentänzer".

One aspect of Gent that really excited me was the chance to see the famous Gent Altar. Having recently watched the movie "The Monuments Men", this altar held a greater significance than it might have otherwise done for me. The altar is currently housed in the St. Baafs Cathedral. I went into the cathedral at 4:28pm. I was exactly 28 minutes too late to see the altar. There was a replica of the altar that I was able to see. (Well it was in a closed chamber, but the walls were columns and I could peer through). In the movie, all panels of the altar are recovered. However, in real life, one panel disappeared  in 1934 and they are still searching for it. It is currently undergoing restoration. The cathedral itself is full of other amazing pieces of art. All over the place hang signs forbidding photography in the cathedral. I saw a number of people ignoring this, however I chose to follow it. 

From the cathedral I continued through the city coming to the city hall. The city hall really stood out as its structure and style differed greatly from buildings around it.

As I continued to walk through town, the sun began to set and I got to enjoy a beautiful sunset over the city.

I continued walking through Gent, headed to the Vrijdagmarkt. In the middle of the square is a statue of Jacob van Artevelde, who kept Gent neutral during the 100 years war. Nearby stands an orange-red canon. It has stood in exactly that spot for 425 years and has never been shot. The red color is original. 

I continued walking through town until I looped my way back to the fish market, where I began. Along my journey, I stopped in at Leonidas chocolatiers and tried a Gent specialty, the Cuberdon is a sweet with a raspberry flavor. It is also called a Neuzeke, or little nose. Overall I had an incredible time visiting Gent and hope to get to return and spend more time in this gorgeous city. 

Science is Cool!

When I said I was headed to Belgium, people would often ask what I planned to do there. My first answer was always "go to the Atomium". To get to the Atomium, I took two trams north of the city center. I was absolutely surprised by this part of Brussels. I saw a huge cathedral that reminded me in some ways of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, a 6 story temple in the Chinese style and a large Japanese temple. Along the way I changed trams at the De Wand station and was treated to amazing street art  / graffiti. This graffiti showed dragons, people, space ships and so much more. I would recommend visiting this station just to see the art.

Finally I reached the Atomium. The walk from the station to the larger than life atom was treacherous. It was still completely iced over and quite slick. Part way through I asked someone to take my photo. Jay and his Mom were visiting from the Philippines. They tried to take several photos of me but the settings on my camera kept darkening my face. They took one on their camera and we exchanged email addresses. Hopefully they will send it.

The Atomium was originally built for the 1958 World Fair and was intended as a temporary structure, however its popularity and success made it a key landmark and it was never torn down. A few statistics about the structure:

height: 102m
surface of the spheres: 1082 square meters / 240 square meters
diameter of the spheres: 18m
diameter of the base pavilion: 26m
diameter of the tubes: 3m 30
length of the cube edge tubes: 29m
length of the diagonal tubes: 26m
constructed  in 1958
renovated in 2003 / 2006
mass: 2,400 tons (1958)  
          2,500 tons (2006)

To ascend the structure one can take an elevator directly to the center sphere. This elevator travels at a speed of 5m/s, which made it the world's fastest when it was built in 1958.

To ascend and descend through the side spheres, one utllizes

3 escalators and 80 steps to go up
1 escalator and 167 steps to go down

Each sphere of the Atomium serves a different purpose. The middle sphere allows for panoramic views and also houses a very expensive restaurant. Needless to say, I only saw the views and did not sample the food of the restaurant. It was a beautiful morning. As I looked out, the sky was clear and I could see quite a distance, yet there was a low hanging fog that made the city in the distance look hazy. It was also possible to see other spheres from the windows of the panorama. 

The other spheres contained exhibits including one on plastic and 55 years of the Atomium history. Plus some spheres contained viewing platforms as well.

Traveling between spheres, the escalators themselves were an experience. The escalators were steep and narrow. Eerie music played in the tubes. One of them had windows that allowed me to see out and see bits of the Atomium as I traveled. I almost lost my balance several times trying to look out the porthole windows above me. The other was in a completely solid tube and had red and blue lights. It reminded me of a retro take on the future of space. 

The other method of transversing the Atomium was via stairs. I noticed the railings echoed the design of the Atomium with tubes and spheres.

Several hours later, exiting the Atomium, the sun was higher in the sky and the structure appeared to sparkle. I went to the otherside of the structure to take some more photos, including the stereotypical one in which it looks  like I am balancing the spheres on my fingers. I also took my photo in a Atom like structure at the base. It's mirror feature reminded me of the Bean in Chicago. (Don't know what the Bean is? Check out my post from Dec 24, 2014). Finally returning to the side that would lead me to the tram, I took some photos with the "be. welcome" sign as well. I had an amazing time visiting the Atomium. This will definitely be remembered as a highlight of my trip. Although my tour guide on my first day in Brussels recommended against visiting the Atomium, I would highly recommend it if you have the time. 

29 December 2014

In Brugge

There was a film by the same title as this blog post. Truth be told, I've never seen the film but now that I've seen the city, maybe one day I'll see the film. Maybe.

My day started out at the Old Chocolate House in Brugge. My friend Sandra had been there a week previously and she highly recommended it. The Old Chocolate House is a chocolate shop and tea rooom. Honestly I found the service to be horrid, but the food was amazing. I ordered a ginger hot chocolate and a Brussels-style waffle. The hot chocolate came as a vat of steaming hot milk and a plate of chocolate  to mix in it. It was honestly too much. Although I had not eaten breakfast and it was lunchtime, I could not finish it. 

I then set off to walk around Brugge and burn off some of that amazing chocolate and waffle. As I walked around the town, I saw how the town was decorated for the holidays as well as the Christmas market. Brugge is mostly a pedestrian town (in it's center at least), but sometimes I was in areas that I truly thought were pedestrian only and it turned out they were not. I did have to watch out for vehicles, perhaps more than normal since I did not expect them. In addition to wheeled vehicles, the center of town was teeming with horse-drawn carriages, which provided tourists with a unique city tour. I came t quickly associate the sound of horse hoofs clopping on cobblestones with Brugge. 

Brugge is a colorful city. I saw so many shades of red in the bricks of the buildings. The city is full of public art, some of which is quite unqiue such as the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalpyse" statues or the fountains near the station. Located only 9 miles from the North Sea, the houses closely resemble houses I have seen in the Netherlands. 

I visited the Notre Dame Cathedral in town and saw the world famous Michaelangelo statue, Madonna and Child. Seeing this was even more poignant for me, because on my flight here I watched the movie "The Monuments Men", and one man died trying to protect this very statue. That movie was based on a true story and has certainly made me appreciate the art I am seeing and the sacrificies people made to protect it in times of war.

Brugge is often compared with Venice because of its series of canals. I took a boat ride on the canals. The view was beautiful, however the ride was uncomfortable due in part to the cold air and mostly due to the kids around me who were pushing each other ... right in to me. But it was nice  to see how the city grew along the canals and the beauty of the city from the water.

After my river tour, I walked around town. I saw the Grote Markt, city hall, and more. I meandered through town until I reached the chocolate museum.

The chocolate museum was crowded and narrow, but it did a good job on displaying the history of chocolate and the process used to make chocolate. My favorite two parts came at the end: 
1. I saw a number of chocolates made into statues. One of my favorite was of a family with the description that they loved chocolate so much that they were eating themselves!
2. We had a demonstration on how to make filled chocolates. I thought it was interesting how they filled the mold, emptied the mold until it was just coated, then once hardened filled with the filling. Once that cooled and hardened, then chocolate was poured over it again.

I enjoyed my day in Brugge, it is definitely a tourist city - full of tourists. I would go back, and if I had a chance, I would want to climb the Belfry tower, visit the city hall inside and explore the narrow winding streets even further. I have also heard that walking along the canals to the windmills is nice. I'll have to return one day and find out. 

28 December 2014

About Antwerp

Yesterday it snowed. Today was bitterly cold and the snow had frozen to ice. This did not stop me from heading out to enjoy Belgium. I went to the train station with every intention of buying a ticket to Brugge, however a mistake (I asked for a ticket to Antwerp) lead me to find out about a special cheaper deal for Antwerp that would only be good on the weekend, so I put Brugge aside (til tomorrow) and headed to Antwerp.

Of all the major cities in Belgium that I plan to visit, Antwerp was the only in which I could not find a free tour. The tourist office offered a guided tour, but I felt the price was a bit steep, so I simply took myself around the city. I may not have learned as much about the history of the city as I would have on a tour, but I think I saw it all and then some. 

I arrived to Antwerp (Antwerpen in Dutch, Anvers in French) via train. Prior to my arrival, I had googled sites in Antwerp and the Antwerpen Centraal Station was on the top of many people's list. The train station was magnificant and definitely worth seeing. In fact later that day when I stopped in at tourist info and asked for suggestions, they even suggested that I go visit the station! 

The station is multi-level,which trains arriving on various levels. To get to the lowest level where my train arrived / departed, I had to take a series of escalators. One of the escalators was quite unique because about half way up it stopped ascending/descending and became a horizontal moving walkway and then resumed it's ascent/descent. The station was ornate and yes, worth seeing.

Antwerp is built along side the Schelde river. I headed first towards the river. As I walked through town, I could see that Antwerp, like Brussels, has a Christmas market and was decorated with a number of lights. As it was early in the morning, not much was going on at the markets, but I knew that later they would be teeming with people. Part of the market was at the river. I walked along the river, carefully navitgating my way along icy walkways towards the castle. 

This one particular statue fascinated me. It is a very large man towering over two smaller men. I do not known anything about it, but must google it to find out more. ]

I headed along the river until I reached the Museum Aan De Stroom (MAS). I was not interested in the exhibits at the museum, but rather in the architechtural uniqueness of the building as well as the rooftop viewing platform on the 10th floor. I really enjoyed the 365 degrees view of the city as well as the river and countryside surrounding it. 

From the MAS I headed 5 more minutes down river to the Red Star Line Museum. This was one museum I was quite interested in the exhibit of. 

The Red Star Line was a shipping line that traveled between Antwerp and the US  & Canada. The official name of the company was Société Anonyme de Navigation Belge-Américaine (SANBA). SANBA  had the aim to transport cargo to Europe from America and passengers on return. The maiden voyage of the company took place on the 20th of January 1873 with the ship "Vaderland". 

The company flourished and thousands of people emigrated to the US or Canada leaving Europe via Antwerp until World War I. After WWI, the company faced financial problems as the US imposed stricter immigration restrictions. In 1934 the company was liquidated and sold to a German, Arnold Bernstein. However in 1939 Bernstein had to flee Germany and the ships were taken over by the Holland-America Line. 

The museum focused on the immigration process pre-1920's, the company itself and immigration in general. I found the exhibits fascinating. I easily spent 2 hours in the museum and probably could have spent much more. It was definitely worth a visit.

After the museum I headed back to the Grote Markt and central area of town. I went to the cathedral. It was magnificant from the outside, but I did not visit the inside as they wanted visitors to pay a steep entrance of 6 Euros (approx 8 dollars) 

I also saw the city hall and the christmas market in full swing. I enjoyed a glass of hot apple wine at the market, ate a delicious Lebanese lunch and simply enjoyed the day. 

I was also quite impressed by the locals of Antwerp. It was a bitterly cold day, but they were all out and about. In fact the markets were so packed that we probably stayed warmer as a result!