Archive for the ‘Belgium’ Category

The Lowlands

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Between the two fields, we awoke Wednesday morning (19/5) had some Harvest Morn bars and packed up our stuff. David had slept outside the night before so his sleeping bag was a bit damp, but it was a bright morning and we soon had everything dried out. So, we started north toward Brussels.

The Belgian countryside is quite nice, but rather unremarkable. Rolling hills and fields, lots of agriculture, and small farming towns. Politically, the country is a bit divided, but not violently so. The conflict centers around Belgium’s relationship with their neighbors. With French and Walloon (a French dialect) spoken in the south and Flemish (a Dutch dialect) in the north, there is sometimes a pull by the French-speaking areas to tighten their relationship with France. A few years ago, a francophilic member of government accidentally sang the French national anthem instead of the Belgian national anthem in front of the press and caused an uproar.

Belgium is also the seat of government for the EU which has its quite impressive and modern headquarters in Brussels. We parked in Brussels near the center of town and visited the main market square, surrounded by beautiful, tall buildings, and visited Manneken Pis, a small, eternally urinating statue. We then sauntered through town past the national library, the palace and the surrounding park and arrived at EU headquarters. The headquarters complex is a feat of modern engineering. Not as ostentatious as, say, the Scottish Parliament building, but impressive nonetheless. In the first courtyard, the four surrounding buildings are connected by a raised, circular walkway. In that courtyard is the main entrance and also an information center. We explored the outside of the building then headed back to the center of town where we had seen a waffle shop.

Belgian waffles are an experience unlike any other. The mass-produced Eggo contrivances pale to cardboard in comparison with real, hand-made Belgian waffles drizzled with chocolate or strawberry or piled high with whipped-cream or fruit. One by one we went up to the little window and ordered our treats. Mine with chocolate; Matt’s with kiwi, strawberry, and banana slices; David’s with strawberries; and Dan had two: one powdered sugar and one chocolate. After his first, Dan exclaimed “I will never look at waffles the same” and promptly bought another.

Dan and I had recently read an “historical” article in our favorite satirical newspaper (The Onion) about how Belgians had halted World War II German advances by serving the attacking forces waffles until they could attack no more. We were certainly fully satiated by these delicious morsels, partly because our appetites have shrunk from not feeding ourselves as often or as much as we had at home, but also because Belgian waffles are rightfully famous.

Anyway, after our confection break we piled back into our mud-covered, semi-stunning Passat and headed toward Amsterdam by way of Antwerpen. We didn’t have a lot of time so we just stopped to send and receive some emails and Matt and I each ordered a half-pint of famous Belgian beer each. Matt did not enjoy the taste of his, but did appreciate the experience. I, however, had ordered one brewed by the Belgian Trappist Monks of Grimbergen since 1128 and enjoyed it quite a bit.

At that point David got an email inviting us to join the youth group at in Bad Pyrmont for hamburgers “American Style”. That event, however, was to take place on Thursday evening at 17:00 and we hadn’t planned on being in Bad Pyrmont until Wednesday so, we had to book it. We left that afternoon and got into Amsterdam early that evening.

Amsterdam is a city with the feel of a small town. We pulled in the day before a national holiday (although we didn’t know it at the time) and the streets at 22:30 were full of families on bikes, couples walking hand-in-hand along the canals, and groups of friends relaxing at outdoor cafés. There were a few street performers out, and hundreds and hundreds of bicycles. We saw the Anne Frank house, the national museum, the Hotel America, and generally took in the feel of the town. We left late that night and went north along the Noord-Holland peninsula toward Friesland. We camped that evening at a parking spot just off the road.

The next day we spent the day driving through northern and eastern Netherlands seeing the dikes, windmills (most of which were modern wind generators, but there were a few old-style mixed in). We stopped at a small town called Oldeberkoop (founded in 1105), visited the local church (built in 1125), saw a county fair, and watched some handball games at a sports camp. Then, we were on our way again. We passed into Germany an hour or so later driving straight to Münster.

Münster is the city where, during the Anabaptist reformation, several Anabaptists set up a small kingdom, took biblical names and proclaimed themselves prophets. They then proceeded to rule with impunity from biblical laws killing people who rejected their claims and, when the city was besieged, led the men in a brutal fight. This led to a shortage of men and polygamy broke out. All in all a bad situation, and really not very good for Anabaptists or Christian witness. In the end, when the besieging army finally broke through, the bodies of the three leaders were hung in cages from the tower of the town church and the cages remain to this day. A rather gruesome history, but a nice city.

From Münster we went northwest toward Bad Pyrmont and, after being thrown off our route by construction twice, we eventually made it into town and, using a stray wifi signal eventually worked out where David’s friends lived and made it there at about 17:45, just 45 minutes late.

Daniel Z

Versailles to Belgium

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Versailles to Belgium
Tuesday morning (18/5) dawned clear and dry and we awoke in our little campsite between the field and the golf course outside of Pontoise, France. After a breakfast of delicious (if slightly browned) Scott’s porridge with honey, we packed up and hopped in the car. “To Versailles!” we cried and promptly got stuck in some mud. A few minutes later we were on our way, but our jet black Passat was not quite as stunning as it had been, nor as black.

Versailles Palace, just outside the town of Versailles (which is a suburb of Paris these days but used to be outside of the city). The palace was originally built during the reign of Louis XIV, who was called the “Sun King” and king during the apex of French continental power. Apparently, however, he was a rather warlike fellow who preferred fighting to friendship and ended up almost bankrupting the kingdom through constant warfare. His residence at Versailles was built around his father’s (Louis XIII) garden chateau, which he expanded greatly in the highly ornate classical style that was popular during his reign.

The most obvious example of the highly ornate style is the pair of gigantic, gold-painted gates which stand at the entrance to the inner courtyard of the palace. The palace sits facing a gigantic parade grounds (now filled with cars and busses full of German, Spanish, and British tourists and middle school students). Behind the palace are the expansive gardens, at least a square mile in size, which contain smaller houses for many of the kings courtiers, mistresses, and family members.

We parked in the parade grounds (which cost several euros and hour to park in) and ate a delicious lunch of baguette, salami-like sausage tomato, and Laughing Cow cheese sandwiches. Then we headed into the palace after purchasing our tickets (they cost around €13, quite expensive, and didn’t even include admission to the gardens although Matt managed to walk around them without paying admission) we went into the palace. I personally found the palace gaudy, but nonetheless impressive. The apartments of the royal family were filled with family portraits and artwork. Almost every inch of the walls were covered with tapestries, paintings, carvings or other ornamentation. Most impressive to me was the hall of mirrors, at one point a state reception hall with tall windows along one side and tall mirrors along the other. The effect produced fills the room with light.

Versailles was worth the visit—despite the price–for the history alone. It was occupied by several generations of French royalty including the infamous Louis XVI and his equally as infamous wife, Marie Antoinette. It was easy to see while walking the halls of their home why they were perceived as being out of touch with the common people. It’s hard to notice the plight of the commoners when your busy posing for a 10-foot-high portrait or choosing the newest gold-plated silverware for your collection. Today the palace is used by the democratic government of France as the reception hall for events of state, particularly when hosting important international events.

By the end of several hours and after seeing hundreds of portraits and thousands of square feet of decorated walls we were about ready to go. Dan and Matt—Matt because he was exploring the gardens, and Dan because he’s a history major—took a bit longer so David and I waited in the car writing blog posts and catching up in our journals (oddly enough when I opened my computer we had an internet connection right there in the middle of the Versailles parade grounds). After waiting a bit and just before the start of another hour of parking David and I took off to circle the block and save a few euros, and just as we were coming back around for our first pass we saw a bewildered looking Dan and Matt standing where we had been parked, so we picked them up and headed northeast. They forgave us for the annoyance of not knowing where the car was when we explained that we had saved them several euros.

We skirted Paris and headed north in the direction of Lille (where I once spent a few hours waiting for a train) and Belgium. We stopped only twice, once to fill up on water and use the toilet and, just before we were on our way, we were surprised when we spotted a small abyssinian guinea pig peeking it’s nose out of the bushes next to the parking lot! The other time we stopped was to get a picture with the sign welcoming us to Belgium. It was pretty difficult to find a place to camp in Belgium, it’s a nation with some beautiful countryside, but it’s also pretty heavily populated countryside. We did eventually, rather late in the evening, find a place to set up camp in the fallow land between two fields. As we drove off the farm track to camp, several rabbits scampered across the field, startling me a bit. Dan, Matt and I slept in the car and David slept on a tarp outside and, after a meal of some stew with canned ham, we nodded off.

Daniel Z

On Food

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

When we were making the budget for the trip, we decided that we would aim for €10 a day for food. We thought it might be a bit ambitious, but we figured we would try it. After all, the more we saved on food, the more we could spend on experiences like the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the London Underground, Stonehenge, Norway, etc. It started on our first day with our ramen noodle hobo meal in the Dublin ferry terminal. Then when we were in Cannock we went to Aldi and we’ve been on a roll since then. Our first meal was rather bland. American cheese, white bread, and extremely cheap meat. Then after a day or two we realized we were way under budget so we bought some mustard and it’s been uphill ever since.

These days we’ve been living high on the hog. Scotts Porridge with raisins, apples, and sugar every few mornings; Real meat, cheese, and vegetables in our lunchtime sandwiches; and soups, stews and pasta dishes for suppers; have become commonplace, though certainly not unappreciated. Another thing we’ve been able to do has been experience more of the local flavors of the nations we’ve visited by spending a bit more to get something locally produced instead of mass produced and imported. These local delicacies have included: shepherds pie and Irish stew in Ireland; lamb roast and fish and chips in the UK; baguettes and Laughing Cow cheese in France; waffles and beer in Belgium; Apfelschorle and local ice-cream in Germany; and knäkebrödsskolan and swedish meatballs in Sweden.

I brought along a little camp stove and camp fuel so we’ve been able to buy foods that need a bit of cooking. Our facilities (and abilities) are limited, but stews, rice, couscous, porridge, and hot chocolate add a nice variety whenever we have time to set up the stove. One really amazing experience happened a few days ago. We had decided that the small camping pot we had was really a bit too small for four hungry guys, so we went into a Swedish grocery store to see what we could see and, lo and behold, there on the bottom shelf underneath a number of largeish pots for 139 krona was a largeish pot without a handle. “Well,” I said to David, “I wonder if we can get some money off for that.” So, we went and asked the manager and, after a bit of discussion in Swedish and broken English, he said we could have it for 100 krona! What a glorious day! Ok… so… not as exciting, perhaps, for normal people, but I hope you will exult with us. That pot has been wonderful and has allowed us such delicacies as fusilli with spaghetti sauce; pasta, potato, and tomato stew; and, best of all, popcorn.

At the moment, we have a variety of condiments (in a variety of languages), some snacks and fruit, some vegetables and soups, and rice, couscous, and pasta. When I first told people that we were aiming for €10 a day, some people doubted us but we’ve proven it can be done, it just takes a bit of willingness to experiment and learn how to cook, especially for 4 bachelors.

Daniel Z