Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Brugge



Brugge is medieval wonderland, easily deserving its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its many canals, it is often called the "Venice of the North." We were lucky enough to spend a day exploring its medieval streets. Aaron was our tour director, scanning the skies for towers and dragging us in the appropriate direction in hopes of gaining altitude over the village for the big view. His tour led us through several cathedrals which yielded dead ends in the elevation department but valuable information that we could climb a bell tower in the city hall at the center of town. With his sights set on the bell tower, we headed out. We arrived at the city hall just as it was beginning to fill with beer festival attendees anxious to get their hands on Belgian brews and then step into the central courtyard for a smoke. We shuffled through the crowd to buy our tickets for entrance up the stairs. Floor by floor we climbed above the clouds of cigarette smoke, pausing on each to check out its contents. We saw the old trunk with its seven locks that held the cherished town charter that established the townspeople's rights with the king as well as other important documents. We saw the carillon drum that played the music of the bells and the process of how it all works. We saw bells of all sizes, and at the top we saw the windy, rainy view. We hung out waiting for the hour to turn so we could watch and listen, with our hands over our ears, to the bells in action. As we exited the town hall, Jason decided that having tried Belgian waffles, Belgian chocolate, and Belgian beer, we had to try the last typically Belgian thing we hadn't tried yet, frites, or as we say in America, French Fries. So he got in line with all the other tourists to place his order. When our frites arrived, all the boys anxiously started devouring the basket. I took one, chewed it, and very inconspicuously spit it out. Mmm delicious. Overcome with thirst, we sought out the pub with over 300 Belgian beers. Located on a quiet, empty street, we stepped into the crowded, dark pub and worked our way to the back corner where we sat down and ordered a local brew from the dizzying list of choices and had a plate of cheese. Feeling properly Belgian, we headed back to the train where we snuggled together as we passed my phone around playing Ticket to Ride Europe while the Belgian countryside glided by in the dark.

Click here for photos.


Monday, February 18, 2013

Beersel



Belgium is home to loads and loads of castles so we decided that our visit wouldn't be complete without seeing one or two. The small village of Beersel has a beautiful red-bricked castle with a moat around it and an eight kilometer path through the countryside so it sounded like the perfect Saturday activity. When we arrived in Beersel, we found that the castle was not actually open for the winter, but we were happy to be out in the countryside and we got to check out the castle from afar. After lunch at a brasserie next to the castle, we found the Kesterbeekwandeling path and set out on our walk as the weather began to pelt  us with very small snow balls which gave way to rain, which then gave way to sunshine, and then snow, then rain, then every combination in between. Along the way we passed by friendly little Shetland ponies and baaing/burping sheep which totally cracked us up. We walked streets through typical Belgian neighborhoods, on paths through forests, up rolling green hills to cobblestone roads through farm fields which disappeared into a muddy slogfest-of-a-road. We arrived back in Beersel chilled from the final pelting of snow and wind we encountered so we ducked into a restaurant across from a cute little church and ordered the boys hot chocolates and a regional lambic and beer for us.

Click here for photos.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Brussels museums


The boys and I were sad to leave our morning waffle ritual behind when we moved to an apartment. We missed the coziness of our hotel with hot showers that worked and friendly doormen. But we kept up our exploration, visiting museums and cathedrals we happened upon,  in spite of our waffle-free mornings. I should mention here that we managed to accomplish our waffle goal for the trip. We had joked before we left that we wanted to have waffles with strawberries for breakfast, waffles with chocolate for lunch, and waffles with beer for dinner. Mission accomplished, we completed the waffle trifecta. I digress.

One of the museums that we visited had the terra-cotta soldier exhibit where we saw artifacts dug up from the first god emperor of China's tomb and reproductions of all the ranks of terra-cotta soldiers. It was very cool to learn more about the excavations of the 180-room, palace tomb with its rivers of mercury and 7,000 clay soldiers that guard it.

The city museum that we visited, in addition to city history, had a whole floor dedicated to outfits that the little peeing boy has worn so, at that point, we felt oddly obligated to go visit the Mannequin Pis. Legend has it that this little boy was always peeing on things which annoyed the townsfolk until there was a fire in the city center. When they were unable to put the fire out they called upon the little peeing boy who used his super peeing powers to put it out. For all the fuss made about him, he is really quite small.

Towards the end of our visit we were beginning to feel pooped but Aaron rallied us to go see Basilica Koekelberg. Finished in the 1950's, it is the fifth largest basilica in the world and he found it on Google Earth. He had seen photos from the top so he wanted to see the 360 degree views of Brussels for himself.

Click here for photos.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Arrival in Brussels






After two and a half weeks in Portugal, with a mixture of excitement and sadness we boarded a plane to Brussels. We were excited to explore a new place but also sad to leave Portugal. Our hotel was located in the historic heart of the city. After settling in, we headed out to Brussels' famous Grand Place just a block away, to find some dinner. Our first glimpses of Grand Place were in the dark but, the square itself, truly lived up to its name. The crowded square is surrounded with beautiful late seventeenth century buildings complete with gold-guilded accents and waffle-filled, french-fry-and-chocolate-eating, beer-drinking tourists all striking a pose in Brussels' most famous and iconic attraction. The streets leading away from the square are lined with alternating waffle shops, chocolate stores, beer shops, taverns, and shops selling tourist junk, mainly statues of a little boy peeing. We call him the little peeing boy, but he is formally known as Manequin Pis and he is also, we learned, iconic to Brussels. After soaking up the surroundings, we settled into La Bruette, a cozy brasserie, for dinner where I was delighted to see salad options on the menu, a welcome sight, after the all-meat, all-the-time menus of Portugal. Our dinner was delicious and our initial assessment of Belgian food was positive as it is very heavily influenced by France, and the beer is world class.

The following day Jason headed to his meetings as the boys and I sat down to breakfast where they officially tasted their first Belgian waffles. Both boys gave the waffles very high marks. With stomachs full of waffles and French pastries, we headed out to explore in the daylight. After a bit of wandering, through beautiful northern European architecture reminiscent of a mixture of Amsterdam and Paris, Isaac lamented that he already missed Portugal. When I asked him why, he replied that the sidewalks were too wide, the buildings too clean, and the area was entirely too touristy. He continued, adding that at least the tourist shops in Portugal had better taste...they sell roosters instead of little peeing boys. At this point, we happened upon the national cathedral, the cathedral of St. Michel and St. Gudula, so we went in. The cathedral was huge and I know we should have been awe-inspired but we weren't. It turns out that we are quite partial to Portuguese architecture and the cathedrals of the north do not speak to our hearts like the ones in Portugal. It is interesting nonetheless to see the difference. The feeling, to me, was much darker and colder. The dark images and statues against the stark, light grey structure of the church felt oppressive and foreboding.

In the days following, the boys and I continued our typical Belgian day starting with the waffle ritual in the morning followed by city exploration in the rain, and, of course, a chocolate after every meal.  We walked, clutching our umbrellas in the wind, to the bigger-than-St.-Peters-Basilica Justice Palace basilica where we goggled over its sheer hugeness. We walked to the Royal Palace where we came around a corner to find the street blocked by barbed-wire fences and police vans manned with officers in full riot gear. Though they were still letting pedestrians through, Aaron showed that he is wise beyond his years, and declared that maybe we shouldn't continue on this path, so we turned around and retraced our steps. We found out later that there was a protest over an iron mine closure and shortly after we vacated the scene the police unleashed fire hoses on the protesters. Good call, Aaron.

Click here for photos.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Praia walk


One of the must-dos on our list while we were in Sintra was to repeat the walk overlooking the ocean from Praia Grande to Praia Adraga and back. On our last day there, we were graced with a dry day and even a little bit of sunshine so we headed for the coast. The boys immediately found long pieces of bamboo that were transformed into walking sticks, weapons, and vaulting poles. The battles were epic and the vaulted ravines were vast. At Praia Adraga we sat down to the famously delicious restaurant and ordered lunch and, as is tradition there, a glass of wine. I lounged in the short-lived sunshine eating bread soaked in local olive oil, sipping wine while Jason devoured his oft-dreamed-about lamb chops. After our decadent lunch I met a family from California who is taking twelve months off to travel the world. It was very interesting to meet them and hear a little about where they've been and where they are going. Very ambitious. After watching the wild waves and our wilder sons on the beach for a while, we headed back to the trail for the rambling walk back to where we started.

Click here for photos.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Mafra




The palace of Mafra lies a little north of Sintra. Frequently described as a smaller Versailles, it was built in celebration of the birth of King João V's daughter in magnificent baroque style. Holding the title of the largest structure built in Europe in the the 18th century it almost bankrupted the country in the process. It was all worth it though. Exquisitely crafted from pastel pink, blue, and creamy marble from the surrounding countryside under direction from Italian artists, it is breathtaking. I'm not sure what else I can say. We toured through the palace where we saw monks' living quarters, the hospital ward, dining rooms, gaming rooms, ode-to-hunting rooms, and the massive library holding 35,000 books, many of significant historical value, including original books by the famous and dearly loved Portugeuse poet, Camoés . A few books were on display including a dragon identification book from the 1400's. It might not get cooler than that. Then we exited the palace and entered the basilica with its massive marble dome, six immense organs, and more carvings than I can recount. It literally took my breath away time after time.

After we felt we had sufficiently viewed everything at Mafra, we headed to Ereceira, a lovely seaside village and surfing mecca. We wandered through Greek-style streets between houses of white with blue accents before taking a walk along the bluff that overlooks the pounding waves of the ocean. We perched ourselves upon some rocks to watch the huge waves roll in and crash against the rock. It didn't take long for one of the waves to find and soak us. With the sun setting, dripping with sea water, we climbed back into our taxi happy and satisfied for the foggy-window ride back to Sintra.

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Storms!



Did I mention that we had some days of wind and weather while we were in Sintra? The first day of wind almost blew Isaac away at the beach, but was then followed by a few days of calm and rain which was followed by another day of high winds. The winds we experienced during our visit were the highest on record for the region. Luis, at our favorite cafe in Sintra said that he felt like in the days between epic winds we were sitting in the eye of the storm, which felt like an oddly right assessment. On one of the days in between storms, we went for a hike that started at Regaliera and led us down a hillside past old quintas to the valley where Colores lies. The trail was muddy, but not in terrible shape. We noticed a few trees down but nothing too unusual. The day after the second big wind day, we went for another hike. This hike started at Setais Palace and ended at Pena Palace. As we hiked, it was astonishing how many trees were down everywhere. Huge trees blocked our path and obliterated the rock walls that lined it. It literally looked like a tornado had torn through the forest. We all practiced our monkey skills as we climbed over and through tree after tree until we finally hit the road leading to Pena. We had hoped to hike through the grounds of the palace, but the whole forest had been closed  with no estimate for reopening. We learned later that over 2,000 large trees were blown down by these storms. Though not super ideal weather for a visit, it was interesting to experience it nevertheless.

Click here for photos of the first hike.
Click here for the tornado hike.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Quinta Regaleira and National Palace



The weather during our visit to Sintra was what one might describe as wet and stormy as you may have discovered from Isaac's post. Though it put a bit of a damper on hiking activity, it allowed us time to visit old favorites like Quinta Regaleira and the National Palace.

Regaliera is the mysterious quinta built in the early 1900's by an eccentric opera set designer who strived for maximum romanticism and mysteriousness. After a quick trip through the mansion we headed for the maze of caves where Isaac was thrilled by the challenge of trying to make it through without a light. He emphatically asked for lights to be extinguished whenever we were under ground. When his wishes were met I would freeze, groping for the walls of the tunnel and he would bravely grab my arm in the darkness and lead me through.

In the National Palace we ducked out of the howling wind and pelting rain and revisited the winding maze of ecclectic mix of Moorish and Portuguese tiled rooms while the wind shook and rattled the windows.

Click here for photos of Regaleira.
Click here for photos of the National Palace.

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