Friday, July 20, 2012

Gun control

This is a list of mass shootings in the U.S. since 2005. This list is 62 pages long, and has over 200 entries. 62 pages of senseless violence all too often perpetrated by emotionally and/or mentally disturbed people with easy access to firearms. Most of these shootings were committed using a legally held firearm. In 2007, guns murdered 468 people in Australia, England, Germany and in Canada put together, and 9,484 in the United States (link here). I suspect that Canada probably has the same percentage of disturbed people as the U.S., but far less gun violence thanks to our laws. I hope that the recent tragedy in Denver will spark a serious debate about the value of the Second Amendment, and the perceived "need" of citizens to be able to arm themselves.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Brussels and closing thoughts

Brussels is in many ways a very different city from the rest of the Low Countries' cities I've visited. For one thing it's a lot more French. For another it's quite a lot busier (about as busy as Antwerpen I would say). It also lacks canals and has a much steeper terrain, so expects the walks around Brussels to be a bit tougher. It is a wonderful destination in many ways, whether for culture and museums, shopping, sightseeing, or cuisine. It is a dream location for anyone with a sweet tooth as Brussels is known for its waffles and gourmet chocolates. It is also a comic book fan's dream, but only if you read French.

A quick note about Brussels is that there is an inner Brussels (called the Pentagon) which is the downtown and the historical centre, and the outer Brussels - which despite being more residential and modern also has quite a lot to see. Brussels is also a sprawling city, although it may not be immediately obvious, and some locations might require the use of public transportation to be reached. In the outer Brussels, a couple of interesting locations to see is the Horta Museum and the Atomium and Mini-Europe. The Horta Museum is dedicated to the talented architect Victor Horta who launched the Art Nouveau movement, built some of Brussels' most recognizable landmarks, and without whom Art Deco probably would not have occurred. His restored house is an interesting design museum and an opportunity to see how late 19th century well-off people lived. It is located on 25 rue Americaine, Saint-Gilles (one of Brussels' 19 municipalities), but is only open from 2 to 5. Just a couple of steps away from it is a terrific eatery called Comptoir des Ogres. The food and the service are terrific and the prices are amazing. I highly recommend it. The Atomium is a huge iron molecule with a museum inside, and adjoining it is the Mini-Europe which has models of Europe's most famous buildings. It's pretty neat overall.

The boy who urinates in public is behind me!
In downtown there are way too many interesting sights to list, so I'll just mention a few worth seeing. Definitely check out the Grand Place - you can't miss it, and it's quite striking. Also the Ommegang (more on that in a bit) and the flower carpet events take place here. A really interesting and beautiful church is the Notre-Dame de Sablon, and the district of Sablon around it is also great for fancy antique shops, good brasseries (A La Mort Subite - "Sudden Death" - is supposed to be particularly good), and sightseeing in general. In the Notre-Dame de Chapelle church, which is also quite beautiful (and is free to enter), is the resting place of Pieter Brueghel (the elder). Another church that's easy to miss, but is definitely worth a visit is the Notre-Dame de Bon Secours - it's a smaller but wonderful ecumenical church, with a marvellous organ and very interesting interior. While walking around inner Brussels check out the Manneken Pis - the pissing boy. Some very good waffle places nearby too. Also worth visiting is the Galerie Saint-Hubert - one of Europe's first grand shopping arcades. It's really beautiful, a convenient shortcut, and has very fancy (but pricy) stores. It also has an exit on the famous Rue des Bouchers - a famous restaurant street. Even if you're not hungry go visit it! It's quite an experience!

For museums there's the afore-mentioned Horta museum, but there are others as well. The biggest one - and the absolutely-positively-not-to-be-missed on - is the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (the one W. H. Auden wrote about). It's a huge museum, marvellous and very eclectic collection, and is also adjoined by museum dedicated to surrealist artist Rene Magritte. Both are free on the first Wednesday of every month (from 1 PM onward). Another really interesting museum is the archeological dig beneath the royal square which can be accessed at the tourist information centre. The MIM (Museum of musical instruments) is amazingly beautiful - built by Victor Horta - but I didn't go inside. I hear it's very interesting though and you can hear how the instruments actually sound, it's supposed to have the largest collection of medieval musical instruments. Another museum I have to mention is the CBBD - the museum of comic books. Also located in a building designed by Horta and amazingly beautiful inside, it's a really interesting museum, has an excellent cafe and a comic book shop inside as well. It's a bit of a walk from the centre of the city but totally worth it. Speaking of comic book shops, Brussels has a bevy of comic book shops! Two of the best ones (I tried to check out each one I came across) is the BD-World shop and cafe (yeah, you can get comic books, eat dessert and drink beer all in one place!) located at 8 Place du Grand Sablon. Another very good one (better selection, but a lot more chaotic and no beer or desserts) is Le Depot BD located on 120 Chee D'Ixelles, and almost across the street from it is a huge manga shop (I forgot the name though).

The Ommegang
Brussels is best visited during the first week of July. For most of the first week the city becomes a huge Ren Faire as it gears up for the Ommegang! The Ommegang (literally Walk Around) is a huge celebration and historical parade (about 1400 participants - all volunteers) that takes place in historical spots throughout inner Brussels, culminating with two processions and spectacles in the Grand Place on Wednesday and Friday (they start letting people in at 8, but it doesn't start until 9). Good seats (they erect big stands for the public) go fast, so get tickets in advance. It's an amazing event celebrating the visit of Emperor Charles V to Brussels about 500 years ago, and it is not to be missed! Other events that happen during the week of Ommegang include jousting, historical dinner, various Ren Faire style events, and food and souvenirs stalls (if swords and chainmail and heraldic shields can be considered souvenirs). Definitely do not miss it if travelling to Brussels in the summer!

Okay, some final thoughts on the trip and what I would advise any traveller visiting the same locations:
- reserve rooms in advance, otherwise you end up paying nearly double for the roomss
- splurge on hotels in the centres of the cities (except for Bruges) and save on public transportation and the time needed for transportation, that way you have more time to actually enjoy the destination rather than enjoy the tramways, subways, and buses. In Bruges on the other hand, try to go for a hotel that's further away from the centre. You'll save a lot of money and you can bike or walk around the town more that way
- Wear very comfortable shoes. Ladies, avoid heels - all of these cities are stone-paved and are not heel-friendly at all!
- Watch your step. While Dutch cities tend to be quite clean, Antwerpen, Bruges and especially Brussels share an unfortunate trait with Paris - there's dog shit everywhere. Be careful near corners and near trees especially.
- In Ghent be aware that finding a place to sit down and eat that is not a fast food place is difficult between noon and 6-7 PM
- One thing I noticed is that ATMs are harder to find than in North America, and more places are cash only than here. Carry cash but do it safely - I've heard one or two pickpocket tales, but muggings are rare.
- In the summer plan for mild weather, with frequent showers. Umbrellas are quite cheap there so you don't have to bring your own, and some hotels will even lend you an umbrella.
- Brasserie (essentially a pub) will serve food and alcohol, but in Belgium brasseries will serve food only for lunch and dinner, most of the day they are only watering holes. So while it may LOOK like there are a ton of  places to eat, in reality it may not be so easy to find a spot to sit down and eat. That's mostly a problem in Belgium though, in Amsterdam we never had a problem finding a spot to eat. There are plenty of fast-food places and shawarma joints around if you need a quick bite though. Also for some reason the Dutch are obsessed with Burger King - they're everywhere!
- Tap water is perfectly safe to drink just about everywhere in Holland and Belgium. Skip buying water bottles, bring or buy a container and fill it up at the hotel instead.
- Tipping is customary - this is not UK. However, it is typically done not by percentage the way it's common in North America, but is usually a 1 to 5 euro tip regardless of the establishment. Oh and prices in restaurants and shops already include taxes, so what you see on the price tag is what you pay. In Belgium, however, there is some kind of curious tax that visitors must pay at hotels - it's a very small amount but it is NOT listed in the room price. So if you see it added on, don't panic and don't accuse the hotel of trying to scam you - it's 100% legit.

OK, that's it for now! It is good to be home, but I'm already considering some future destinations to visit. I'm thinking London, northern Italy or Barcelona!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Ghent impressions

Sint-Bavo as seen from the belfry
Just a short post owing to lack of time (ommelgang celebration in Brussels in an hour!) and because I only spent about half a day and a night in Ghent. There are surely many more sights to see and places to visit in Ghent, but I'm pretty confident that for tourist purposes all that Ghent has to offer could be reliably seen in a day. I began my visit near the St. Michael's church in the historical centre of Ghent, but the church was closed that day so I didn't go inside. The Sint-Michelsbrug (bridge) leads from the church to the proper historical, religious and tourist centre of Ghent. There are immediately a few of the key tourist locations to see, conveniently grouped together: the Sintniklaaskerk (church of Saint Nicholas), the city's belfry, the Sint-Baafskathedral (Saint Bavo's cathedral), and the Stadhuis (the city hall), as well as other assorted medieval and renaissance buildings. Sintniklaaskerk is a very imposing and beautiful church from the inside, but there is nothing to see there other than the stained glass windows, architecture, the stone work, and a dizzying view up into the interior of the church's tower. I took a few pictures (admission is free, but not allowed during service and on Sundays) and that was it. Sint-Baaf is much more interesting because the entrance is free, there is a gorgeous and very interesting modern religious art exhibit inside, and of course one of the wonders of medieval Europe - the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb altar by the Van Eycks. It is breathtakings... To see the altar and the very interesting crypts of the cathedral costs only 4 euros, so I highly recommend it. Don't forget to take the free audio-tour for the altar to get the maximum effect. Immediately after Sint-Baaf I visited the square where the Stadhuis is located, and then took the climb up the belfry. It's not free (6 euros), and you can climb all the way up, or climb about a third of the way up and then take the elevator. On the way you can check out the bells, the Big Roland (enormous bell) and the city's dragon. This centuries-old dragon statue was taken down and replaced with a more recent replica but the original is on display in the belfry. Speaking of which, the view from the top is amazing! Totally worth the climb and the admission price, but not for those who are afraid of heights. It is VERY tight and windy up there.

Jesus prays over beers at Dulle Griet
After catching my breath from the belfry trip I took a short walk on Graslei street by the canal and took a canal trip. Honestly it was a big disappointment. It is far less interesting than the Amsterdam and Bruges boat rides, just as expensive and shorter. Skip it and just walk around the northern part of the historic quarter including the glowering grey Gravensteen castle (inside is a museum of medieval relics, weapons and torture instruments plus a tour of the castle walls), the tiny restaurant streets, and the Ghent museum of design. There, you've seen the major Ghent tourist sites and saved 8 euros. Afterwards my father and I decided to look for a place to eat, and that turned out to be a challenge. Be warned! In Ghent proper restaurants are closed until 6 or 7, and brasseries (bars basically) and fast food (whether chains or street food vendors) are the only sources of food for tourists. Also, very few places have menus in English unlike Antwerp, Amsterdam, the Hague or Bruges, and I also found that the locals don't really like the tourists much compared to these other places. Could just be my experience though. Good food can be had at Vrijdagmarkt at reasonable prices (again, no English menus), but the real attract at Vrijdagmarkt was the "Dulle Griet". No, not the Brueghel painting (although named after it). This is an amazing pub, for its selection of beers (over 250 Belgian beers, plus a variety of German, Dutch and English beers), its nice atmosphere (beer kegs used for tables, tapestries cover the walls and ceilings), friendly staff, and awesome prices. Be sure to try their Kwak - it's beer poured into an exceptionally tall glass that you need a special wooden frame to hold on to; by the end the only way to finish it safely is to chug it. The catch is that you have to give the pub staff your shoe (right or left, doesn't matter) that they deposit into a basket which is then pulled up to the ceiling using a winch. You don't get the shoe back until the Kwak is finished and the staff is adamant about it! The shoe is returned to its inebriated owner with the ringing of a bell and much pomp afterwards. Anyway, that's pretty much Ghent. I didn't visit any museums there, but there aren't any museums that interest me there anyway, however, if design and modern art are your thing then visit Ghent's museum of modern art (SMAK) and the Ghent museum of design. SMAK recently reopened and is supposed to be quite a sight inside. Meanwhile I'm finishing my trip in Brussels!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Haarlem, Antwerpen, Bruges

Haarlem's windmill then and now
Not getting enough of smaller-scale Holland, we headed to Haarlem, home of the original globetrotters. Not really, but a wonderful 'little' town (it's actually 150,000 inhabitants strong). We arrived quite early, avoiding the throngs of tourists. It's a very picturesque town, but many of its streets look no different from Amsterdam. Unfortunately the town's main attraction - the Sint Bavo cathedral - was closed for service. I still managed to get a few shots of the interior before being ushered out, but keep that in mind if you're visiting on a Sunday. We walked around for perhaps an hour, but ultimately there was not much to do on a Sunday - all the locals were sleeping or in church and everything was closed. Plan accordingly.

After spending about an hour in Haarlem we headed to Antwerpen (I'll use its native name here). On short impression Antwerpen is a very busy city, almost unpleasantly so. It could just be that it was Sunday though. It is a very beautiful city, but it's in a somewhat greater state of disrepair than Amsterdam. Tremendous 18th century architecture and superb selection of shops for everyone on the central Lange Nieuwe Straat, but again - very thick crowds too. The big central attraction is the Cathedral of Our Lady. An amazing cathedral that took about 170 years to build and some of the most intricate Gothic stone work anywhere. No photography is allowed and the admission price is steep. It's quite something though. The Grote Markt (great market) square is very picturesque as well, the guild houses are very impressive (corporate skyscrapers of 15th-16th centuries). We headed down to the museum of fine arts but after some fruitless walking it turned out that it was closed indefinitely for renovations and most of its collection cannot be viewed. So we headed to the Rubenshuis - house of Rubens - it really should be included in every visit to Antwerp! First of all, the tickets get you admission to both Rubenshuis and the very interesting museum of Mayer van den Bergh for just 1 Euro extra. Rubenshuis is extremely intersting for seeing both how a very rich 17th century person lived, the paintings by Rubens you won't see anywhere else, and Rubens' own collection of Italian, Flemish and ancient Greek and Roman art. Plus it's a stunning building. The van den Bergh museum is likewise unusual (it's also in a multi-story mansioin), and houses very interesting collection of medieval art, modern art, and Breugel! Breugel's famous "Mad Mag" painting is here, as are his book illustrations - you won't see them anywhere else. Overall Antwerpen has a lot more to offer if you want to shop a lot, or if you are into modern art (the MUHKA museum of modern art is supposed to be great), but we only spent a few hours here.

The first stock exchange ever
Make a note right now: if you're driving in Belgium it is not good to be driving on fumes! Service stations are: a) closed on Sundays, b) non-existant outside of towns. After a nerve-wrecking drive around the (very picturesque) countryside we were able to locate a gas station in the nick of time and proceeded onward to Bruges. After being delayed by cows heading home and blocking the traffic we finally arrived. Bruges is well Bruges. It is like a dream you can't forget. It shares much architecturally with all the preceding cities but  there is something very unique about it. If you're staying in Bruges consider staying at Hotel Adornes. It's one of the best hotels I've ever stayed in. The best times to walk around in Bruges are in the evining and early morning, it is quiet, drowsy and devoid of tourist hordes. Walk around the entire city - it's really not that big, but packed with interesting spots to see. Avoid any restaurants or shops in the centre of the city like the Black Plague (it's not too soon to make this joke right?) - you can save up to 20 Euroes by taking a 15 minute walk to the outskirts of the town instead. Plus you can check out neat little streets, windmills and old city gates. Definitely come back to the centre of the city around 9. Start in the beautiful market square, and check out the Bruges Belfry. We couldn't make the climb, it was still closed, but the lineup to go up the stairs is usually huge by day, so make sure to be there around 10 to get in quickly. Instead we headed to the Cathedral of Our Lady, another amazing cathedral, this one made more so by Michelangelo's world-famous Madonna and Child, as well as really interesting medieval wall paintings, the painting by Caravagio, and resting places of Charles V (the bold) and his daughter Mary. Honestly though, this church has made the greatest impression, I've felt something close to a religious experience.

After exiting the church, definitely check out the most picturesque bridge in Bruges to the left of the exit (had to wait a while for other tourists to pass), the open-air market (some very good prints there), the beautiful old city hall and to its right the church of Holy Blood - which is supposed to literally have a drop of Jesus' blood. It's taken out once a day at 11:30 I think, but even if you aren't there to see the event visit the church anyway. It is very beautiful and more intimate than gothic cathedrals. Finally, if in the mood for shopping Bruges does offer very fine chocolatiers and of course the Belgian specialty - lace! The best place for price and quality (hand-made, not machine-made) is Paul Lauver's Maison Pickery. There was a lot more to see in Bruges, but we pressed on to Ghent. I will definitely come back to Bruges though!