Wednesday, May 30, 2012

In Bruges. (It's in Belgium)

On Sunday morning we checked out of our hotel and bade farewell to Paris. I was rather heartbroken as we drove through the streets and our awesome taxi driver pointed out so many things we hadn’t had time to see. It’s such a beautiful city, so full of things to see and do, and I shall have to return many more times in the future!

We got to Gare du Nord a bit too early – Mads kept occupied watching this really weird sculpture contraption that was all white with lights and music and a ball thing inside it that smoked and rose up when the music reached its crescendo. It was very odd. I kept occupied watching the cool departures board which has those flippy letters. Unfortunately, waiting for our train was the most enjoyable part of the journey to Bruges. The trains from Brussels were all delayed due to an accident between Paris and Brussels, so the bright fellows at Thalys decided to condense three trains into one and terminate the train at Brussels instead of sending it right through to Bruges. This meant that Mads and I didn’t have a seat, so for three hours we were perched on these little fold down stools next to the doors of a carriage in the baggage section. I was absolutely livid. When you pay 30 euros for a seat you kind of expect a bloody seat! We found the next train that was to take us on to Bruges, just a standard intercity train. Finding a seat with our giant suitcases we were informed by the ticket dude that we’d stumbled into first class and would have to either move or pay the difference. So we lugged our bags into the next carriage and found another seat, and I managed to cool down a bit reading Confederacy of Dunces (really, really funny and horrifying book – a pretty good read that had me laughing out loud quite a lot. Ignatius J. Reilly sure knows how to insult a person).

Cool flippy departures board at Gare du Nord

Gare du Nord

Waiting for the train!

So we got a taxi to our hotel and stayed in for the afternoon relaxing, straying out only to get dinner. We found a nice restaurant with a very begrudging waiter, and were pleased to find that people in Bruges speak excellent English. I feel terribly rude speaking English to them, but I do not know a word of Dutch. The hotel is very nice, apparently part of a building built in the 15th Century, with a canal running along the back of it.

Home for the next few days

A canal

A horse-drawn wagon! I could hear horse hooves on the cobblestones from my hotel window, and thought I must have been going crazy. Thankfully I still have a little of my sanity left.

Swans with their fluffy babies, so cute!

A cool building by the canal that runs along the back of our hotel

Yesterday we slept in, of course (we’re here for five days, partly to recuperate after the busyness of Paris sightseeing and driving around the UK before heading off for more madness in Italy, Austria and Germany), before emerging in the afternoon to wander around the city. It really is a very beautiful city – the buildings are gorgeous, and it has a very chilled-out, holiday vibe (helped by the fact that it was a public holiday in Bruges). The weather has been perfect: warm and sunny with a nice cool breeze so you don’t get too hot. AND being here I’m constantly reminded of In Bruges, one of my favourite all time films. ‘Oh look, there’s Belfort where Colin Farrell insulted those fat American tourists and Brendan Gleeson met his untimely and rather gruesome end.’ ‘It’s like a fairytale, wif the cobblestones and all the churches and the canals.’ Ahhh, if you haven’t seen it, rent it out now. It’s brilliant! We had lunch at a cafe near the Markt (the main square in Bruges), Mads was very excited to find Schnitzel on the menu, but all her hopes were dashed when it came out drowning in salsa. I thought the salsa was the best part of the meal, personally, but if you know Mads you’ll know she’s a supertaster and can’t handle too much flavour. Naturally she was quite devestated.

More horses! They really are quite loud on the cobbles, can't imagine how loud it must have been back in the day when there were horses and carts everywhere...

Belfort, Bruges' famous bell tower.

Bikes at Markt, the main town square. There are even more bikes here than at Cambridge!

Most of the museums seem to be closed on a Monday here, so we decided to check out the Basilica of the Holy Blood (like Colin and Brendan did!), a fairly out of the way church famous for possessing a phial of Christ’s blood. The church itself is rather beautiful, with the wall behind the altar painted with a mural, a beautiful, high ceiling and stained glass windows. We happened to be there when the Relic of the Holy Blood was out for veneration, so we went to have a look-see. It’s in a chapel off to the side, and it was a bit intimidating because you have to climb stairs up onto a dais, and there is a priest(?) sitting behind it, and people were crossing themselves and kissing the glass case in which it lives. But we went up anyway and it was pretty gross – a rather large glass phial with gold and jewels at the end, with rather a lot of this congealed, scabby-looking old blood in it. I felt a bit queasy afterward, actually. We had a sit in the church for a little bit, taking in the cool, peaceful atmosphere, then had a look in the little one-room museum they have which has a few triptychs of the Crucifixion, and the reliquary in which the blood is transported during a procession that takes place every ascension day, covered in gold and precious stones.

Heading in to the Basilica of the Holy Blood

We got some delicious ice cream in the square outside the Basilica, before having another explore in which we came upon a castle gatey sort of thing and a couple of windmills. We then happened upon a street that led to our hotel, which I was glad about because I needed the loo. We stopped in for a while, reading and just generally chilling out which was nice, before heading out again in search of Belgian waffles. We found nowhere that was reasonably priced and open, so we just got some Chinese takeaway and went back to the hotel again. Interesting note: MasterChef Australia was on the tellie! The last one that Kate won... that was nice to see! Actually most shows here seem to be English-speaking shows with subtitles, except for the cartoons which are dubbed – Spongebob Squarepants in Dutch, rather humorous!

Ice cream outside the Basilica

Some castle-gatey thing. I don't think it's particularly old but it looks cool

The discovery of a windmill in our wanderings.

Another cool building. It's hard to tell which ones are actually old and which ones just look old... 

A nice tree by a canal. 

The canal from our hotel window

Mads collapsed from exhaustion in the hotel room.

Today was another very nice, relaxed day. We got up early to have breakfast in the hotel, but once we got back to the room fell asleep again for another couple of hours. Oops. (Give us a break, okay, we are totally buggered after Paris!). We decided to head down to Djiver to take a boat ride along the canals, and on our way there saw a chocolate shop (there are SOOO many chocolate shops here. Deadly for a confessed chocoholic like yours truly) that had chocolates in the shape of sheep! I love sheep! So in we went and I got a sheep and Mads got a duck because she loves ducks. We decided to save them up to eat later, so off we went for our boat cruise. It was so nice! Bruges is just so dang pretty! With the beautiful buildings along the canals, the sun shining, the overhanging willows and bright flowers in window boxes, the pretty bridges, and the fact that we were on a boat (I love boats!) all combined for a very nice way to spend the middle of the day. Also there were heaps of fluffy little ducklings and baby swans on the water, sooo cute!! One major disappointment was that the dog in the window was not there! We have heard so much about this famous dog, so when we saw his window and cushion empty we were very sad. So once the boat ride was over we decided to have a stake-out for the dog, finding ourselves a nice spot across the canal from where the dog lives to eat our chocolates. But oh dear, even more disastrous was the state of our animal shaped chocolates. My sheep was all melty and squashed against the side of its plastic packet, while Mads’ duck was nothing but a chocolatey puddle with pink spots in her bag. Still the doggy did not come, so we went to the Groeningemuseum, an art gallery which houses a few famous works of art and many more by Flemish artists. A very nice surprise was that it cost us only 1 Euro each because we are both under 26!

Belgian chocolate in the form of a duck and a sheep! Super cute!

Boating on the canals. I really love boating.

One of the very pretty bridges - I think this is one of the smallest bridges in Bruges, something to do with love or romance or whatevs.

More nice canal scenery

Got her! Mads on the boat

The window sans dog.

I have to say I find the works by the Flemish masters, including Provoost and Van Eyk to be a little too morbid for my taste. There’s so much death and torture: The Judgement of Cambyses in which he is flayed alive (this is a very famous painting); the torture of Saint George, including being boiled, dragged behind a horse and decapitated; others being stabbed and having molten gold poured down their throat; not to mention all the pictures of the Birth of Mary, Mary’s death and ascension, and of course the Crucifixion. Ouch. We also saw Provoost’s famous Death and the Miser painting. But there were also some absolutely stunning chalk drawings, landscapes and old portraits displayed, as well as some exceptionally weird modern art.

Heading in to Groeningemuseum

My favourite piece in the gallery, Portrait of a Girl by Albert Jakob Frans Gregorius.

My close second-favourite, Self Portrait by Edmond van Hove. Incredible!! It feels like he's staring at you out of the darkness.

Outside Groeningemuseum

We finally got our Belgian Waffles in a cafe near Djiver after we left the museum. They were pretty yummy, with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. Then we went to stalk the doggy in the window one last time – nothing. I’m starting to doubt the existence of this dog...

Yum yum Belgian Wafels

Back to the hotel and Mads had a snooze before we played a board game she got back in Bath called Dick Turpin, in which you are a highwayman trying to rob a stagecoach called the Silver Flyer between London and Edinburgh and back, demanding ‘Stand and Deliver’ when you’re attempting to rob it. It was pretty fun, but it really needs more than two players, so we played my right hand, my left hand, Mads’ right hand and Mads’ left hand. Mads’ right hand won by a landslide. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Busily Adventuring in Paris

Wow wow wow, there is a lot to catch up on! Apologies for the recent silence, the internet in our hotel was not very reliable, so this will have to be a rather lengthy edition in order to get through everything we’ve done!

I left you at Versailles: after such a big day of walking around and for practical reasons, we decided to have a sleep-in and concentrate our sightseeing efforts on the Ile de la Cite, which was in walking distance of our hotel.

We started at Crypte Archeologique du Parvis de Notre Dame, which is basically the archaeological remains of medieval and even Gallo-Roman buildings beneath the square in front of Notre Dame. It was great: there were doorways, stairs, foundations of buildings and the remnants of old cellars, as well as parts of Roman columns and cornices, part of what could have been a Roman bath and a furnace for a Roman under-floor heating system. As well as this it was very cool temperature-wise (it was a pretty hot day), and there were hardly any people in there – a very rare occurrence for a tourist destination in Paris. I really love archaeological sites: it’s amazing to see doorways people walked through, floors they stood on, and stairs they descended so long ago – they provide such a direct link with the past. Also I like the smell of dirt.

Ruins in the Crypte Archeologique under Notre Dame

Old stairs!

I heart archaeology.

Remnants of a Roman column

We had planned on hitting Sainte-Chapelle next, but it was closed for lunch so we moved on to stop number three, the Conciergerie. Originally the palace from which the Kings of France ruled, it is more famous for its role as a prison and the home of the terrifying Revolutionary Tribunal, which operated during the French Revolution. You enter through a huge, beautiful hall that originally served the staff of the palace in the 14th Century, with gorgeous vaulted ceilings and four massive fireplaces (it now seems to be used as a storage area for tables and chairs from the Palais du Justice which it is connected to, as well as a tourist attraction). However despite its beauty it has a rather creepy atmosphere, due in part to its horrible history. It was here that during the French Revolution nearly 3000 enemies of the revolution were ‘tried,’ and kept to await their meeting with La Guillotine over 1793 and 1794. The most famous prisoner was Marie Antoinette, who was imprisoned here before her execution. There are recreated cells illustrating how the prisoners lived, including one in which those to be taken to the scaffold had their personal belongings taken, their hair shorn off and their collars ripped. There are also two chapels: one built on the place where Marie Antoinette’s cell stood, the other larger one was where 21 Girondins (a legalist, liberal group opposed to the powerful Commune group and the creation of the Criminal Court, which was soon transformed into the Revolutionary Court) feasted together the night before their execution. Talk about intense! There is also a room in which the names of all those who faced the Revolutionary Tribunal are listed; a Guillotine blade; and the Cour des Femmes, where female prisoners wandered about and washed themselves in a fountain (still there), and also where groups of 12 at a time waited for the tumbrels to take them to the scaffold. As I say, the whole thing was extremely intense and I left feeling rather weighed down.

The main hall of the Conciergerie

Heading towards the recreated cells

The Cour des Femmes, where women washed and exercised, and where prisoners waited for the tumbrels to take them to La Guillotine.

The Conciergerie from the outside.

After heading to Maccas for a drink and a McFlurry, it was off to Sainte-Chapelle. It was so incredibly beautiful: basically the walls of the upper floor are almost all stained glass depicting over 1000 scenes of the story of man from creation to the resurrection of Christ. The ground floor is very beautiful as well, brightly painted with arches, a sculpture of Saint Louis who built it to house the relics of the Passion of Christ, and a gift shop (the poor fellow working at the gift shop was involved in a dispute with an old lady who had crossed a chain barricade and planted herself on a bench that runs around the walls to enjoy a cup of tea. He was trying to get her to move on, she sure as hell wasn’t going!). But when you ascend the tight spiral stairs into the Upper Chapel, bathed in coloured light, it really is a ‘wow’ moment.

The outside of Sainte-Chapelle

The Lower Chapel of Sainte-Chapelle

The incredible Upper Chapel of Sainte-Chapelle

The Palais du Justice

Bookstalls along the Seine. They had some cool books and very cool posters for sale

We headed back to the hotel after this, as we were all sweaty and had to get ready to go to the Opera Bastille to see Le Barbier de Seville (aka The Barber of Seville). Opera Bastille, despite being a modern building, is really beautiful inside – huge, airy and light. And the Opera itself was fantastic! It was a very different experience, they were singing in Italian and the subtitles were in French, so I thought it was fun figuring out what was going on – we knew the basic plot so it wasn’t too hard to get it. But I had one of the best opera moments ever: one of the final songs, the guy’s got the girl, they’ve got hitched, it’s all dandy – the conductor throws a soccer ball on the stage, which the lead singer starts juggling before taking off his Seville-style top to reveal a football jersey and the members of the chorus start waving little flags. It was brilliant, everyone in the audience started laughing and cheering and taking pictures, it was just so completely unexpected. Mads had to explain to me that the Euros (? Some soccer thing, I dunno) are about to start and that is why it happened. Still it was pretty awesome!!

Inside the Opera Bastille

Memorial to the Parisians who died in the revolution of 1830, Place de la Bastille

Opera Bastille from the outside

Friday was an absolutely fantastic day because we went to Disneyland Paris!! It was completely bizarre at the same time: my head was telling me I was in Paris, but it sure as hell felt like I was in California! Especially Main Street – so, so, so weird. But still so much fun! There is not as much in terms of rides at Paris Disney compared to the California version, and there weren’t really many lines at all so we got to go on all but about 3 rides. Mads and I LOVE rollercoasters, so we started with Big Thunder Mountain which is very good fun. Indiana Jones had a loop, so that was awesome too. But it was nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to Space Mountain. It is probably the BEST rollercoaster I have ever been on. It was fast, actually shooting you up the big hill, it had a loop and a corkscrew, and it was almost all in total darkness. Brilliant! You don’t know if you’re upside down or right side up or where the heck you are or what’s going to happen next! By the end of the day there was no line at all so we just kept running round and round and going on it again and again. Damn I loved that rollercoaster. Other highlights from the day included Mad Hatter’s Tea Cups, the Phantom Manor and Star Wars Star Tours (both of which were in French so we had no idea what was going on), and Pirates of the Caribbean. Mads made me go on It’s a Small World. That ride freaks me out. Happy little freaky people. I always feel like they are too happy, they must be hiding some dark little secret. Creepy.

The entrance to Disneyland Paris

Main Street USA... In Paris...

Here I am outside Indiana Jones' tent. His hat and whip are in the background. Dreamy.

Any ride with a sign like this out the front is gunna be great!


Have you ever seen a happier person?? Mads riding the teacups

Riding Autopia. Mads got to drive...

She was terrible!! But she had fun, so you know... who cares how much you crash as long as you enjoy it, right Toad?

Possibly the greatest ride ever conceived... Space Mountain: Mission 2. Brilliant!!

There they go shooting upward!

Tweedle Dum or Tweedle Dee. May have been checking me out - stopped right in front of me, looked at my face, looked down seemingly toward my boobs, did it again and walked off. Hey, it happens all the time... 

Mads on the look out at Adventure Isle

Bouncing over the bridge. Bouncing me all over the bridge.


Going all Jeanne d'Arc and leading the charge

A nice catch up with the Caterpillar, in Alice's Curious Labyrinth. After our last maze attempt I'm surprised we braved this one, but we found our way OK

Surely I could fit into this one??

Brace yourselves. The ACTUAL spinning wheel that Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on that left her comatose. On display in Sleeping Beauty's Castle.

This dragon was soo cool, moving around and blowing smoke and being generally dragon-ish.

Mind you one of my favourite parts of the day was watching the little girls in their princess outfits, it was hilarious! There was this tension and rivalry between them all: one little girl in a princess dress looking another little girl up and down in her princess dress; another little girl I saw must been three at most, wearing a very long, full-skirted Snow White dress saw another little girl wearing a smaller fairy dress – Snow White looked the fairy up and down, held out her fuller skirt and gave the fairy a look which very clearly said ‘I have the superior dress, I am so much better than you.’ Ah, it never changes! Meanwhile I was feeling rather envious myself of all these little girls in their princess dresses. Why don’t they make them in my size, huh Disney??

We watched the firework show, which didn’t start until about 11pm because it gets dark so late in Europe at summer, and would have been fantastic if I hadn’t had a very loud, extremely stinky man sitting on me. I mean he actually sat on my foot, and he really smelled. Yucky. But despite this hardship I rather enjoyed it: a projection on Sleeping Beauty’s Castle timed with music, fountains, fireworks and flame throwers. It was very beautiful and moving: dreams really do come true and all that. We didn’t get on the train until after midnight. Being a Friday night it was rather busy on the train, and I had one of my favourite Paris moments: three young, well dressed, well-to-do French fellows sat opposite us, discussing something in French (naturally) in a very animated, passionate and serious manner - I was reminded of Enjolras and the students in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables discussing politics and the plight of the lower classes. Probably they were discussing the latest instalment of their favourite soap opera or something equally menial, but it was cool all the same.

Sleeping Beauty's Castle

Waiting for the show to start. Dreams really do come true... 

The way out :(

After all the running around and screaming we did at Disneyland, on Saturday, our last full day in Paris, we were completely buggered. We slept very late, and were still pretty tired when we actually did get up. First things first, we did our laundry at a launderette conveniently located next door. Hungry, I went to the supermarche around the corner and got a Baguette which was so delicious! So we sat and read, and once we had nice clean clothes again we headed for the Hotel National des Invalides, which was originally a home for wounded war veterans but is now a military museum. It was great! The building is beautiful and positively palatial. We started in a gallery of Ancient Armour and Arms, which was very cool: it included the most amazing suits of armour, guns and swords, as well as things like a 500 year old velvet padded saddle and these beautifully decorated fabric quivers and bow covers. They had a few bows, crossbows, arrows and arm guards, which I liked; helmets decorated with griffins and dragons; pikes; and a stack of cannons, one of which had Cardinal Richelieu’s name and coat of arms on it which Mads was excited to find. It was a very impressive collection.

Paris laundromat

The Hotel National des Invalides

The courtyard at Invalides

One of many, many cannons

Very cool bow cover and matching quiver. I could totally see myself as an archer...

A helmet in the shape of a griffin's head. Pretty amazing

Daisy fields at Invalides

Bows and arm guards in the Musee de l'Armee

We went to the Dome Chapel of Invalides next, which houses Napoleon’s tomb. Wow. The chapel is incredible, so huge and light, with the most beautiful paintings high up on the ceiling. Napoleon’s tomb takes pride of place, and it is big (although I think rather unattractive, which is a shame in such a beautiful space). It is surrounded by statues of angels, which apparently represent Napoleon’s victories, and seem to be looking over his tomb. There are a few other famous French military figures buried in the Dome Chapel, but while I know the names I don’t really know who they are, except one is Napoleon’s son and two are Napoleon’s brothers.

The Dome Chapel at Invalides

Napoleon's Tomb

In the Dome Chapel

We had lunch in the cafeteria, which was okay, and went into another gallery presenting military relics from the 1600s to late 1800s. There are a lot of military uniforms from this time period there, including a jacket, coat and a few hats worn by Napoleon himself. I always knew he was small, but the jacket was absolutely tiny! Another interesting, but rather gruesome, item in this gallery was a bit of armour from the Battle of Waterloo, covering the chest and back of some poor sod: a cannon ball has gone in through the right chest and exited out the back. I’d hate to see the fellow who was wearing it, horrible! But it was a very good museum, apart from Napoleon’s tomb there weren’t many people there at all and I recommend if you are going to Paris you should stop by!

Napoleon's jacket and hat. 

Napoleon's coat, two hats, tent and other personal effects

At Invalides

We went back to the Eiffel Tower to take a boat cruise down the Seine. It was the perfect day for it, however it was very busy and neither of us were really in the right mood for it. But it was nice to see the houseboats along the river (oh how I want to live on a boat! They have lovely flowers in pots and decks with tables and chairs, it just seems to me like it would be a peaceful, relaxed existence living on a boat), and the Parisians with their picnics along the banks – wine, bread and cheese, legs dangling, enjoying the sunshine. We’d had big plans of climbing the Arc de Triomphe afterwards, but instead we went back to the hotel via the supermarket for ham and croissants again, packed our bags and went to sleep. 

A pretty bridge from the Seine cruise

A pretty Paris building

Vive le France!!

Houseboats on the Seine. I really, really want one!!