Friday, July 25, 2008

Getting a bit Germanic

Next adventures after leaving The Netherlands again meant swinging through Brussels for lunch with Mel and Dani and ending up in Cologne by dinner. The cathedral in Cologne is absolutely amazing, thought to be the largest gothic building ever constructed, and it now looms in all it's dark and imposing glory right across the square from the train station.. we liked Cologne before we even found our hostel. Inside, it's just as spectacular, and we decided a workout was in order and walked up the 509 narrow, tightly winding steps to the top - fantastic view, but the 509 back down were definitely easier! We also visited a very cool sculpture park and had fun (probably illegally) climbing on the sculptures... :)
After Cologne we stopped in Trier, a small German town near the border with Luxembourg, which was once the capital of the Western Roman Empire, and has some of the best preserved Roman ruins in the world. Not your typical German town, then. We wandered around an old Roman bathhouse complete with a crazy system of underground tunnels and fun big rocks to climb on, looked in on the original amphitheatre (which is clearly still getting good use-The Pink Floyd Experience was coming to town later in the month and were doing their show outdoors in the amphitheatre!), went in the Dom (cathedral), and also had a look in the Constantine Basilica-which was actually the throne room of the emperor Constantine, and is now completely restored/rebuilt, and is a very imposing place.
While we were in Trier we decided to take a day-trip to Luxembourg (it was so close!) and spent an afternoon walking around the streets and through some of the spectacular parks and gardens. Luxembourg City is a beautifully placed city and it was impressive approaching on the train and seeing the city appear among the valleys and hills.
From Trier we traveled further south to Freiburg im Breisgau, a beautiful town in the heart of the Black Forest region. The town has a unique system of shallow micro-canals running along the side of the footpath in the city centre, originally used for supplying water for animals and such, but it now has the great effect of keeping the city cool, even on scorching hot days like when we were there. We wandered around the town itself, there are a few remaining medieval towers, and a very impressive red sandstone church in the main city square. Mostly though, we just hiked through the forest, which was the closest we've come to feeling like New Zealand yet, really dense tall beautiful green trees... :-D It was a hot day and we were feeling it, but then we stumbled, buried in the depth of the forest, upon a crazy tall tower built of steel and huge tree trunks... and with 230 steps to the top...but the promise of a good view was too strong, so we duly climbed our way up, and it truly was spectacular, and all the more awesome because it was a complete surprise. Only downside of the forest was on our way to find some nice patch of grass to rest on after climbing the tower, we both managed to brush past some stinging nettle, though Antony got the worst of it - such a strange sensation, and at the time, we had no idea what it was so were a bit worried till wikipedia came through and told us it was stinging nettle and the itching would soon go away...
We needed to start making our way up the country again, so next stop was Frankfurt, where we met some awesome people with great music taste who we spent a lot of time sitting around chatting for Frankfurt itself...has to be the least interesting place we've visited. We wandered along both banks of the Main river and looked at the churches and buildings (though most of them are new because the city was flattened in World War Two) but overall we found it to be just a big, bustling, relatively soulless city. Then again, it is the financial capital of Germany, so what should we have expected??
One more quick stop in Bremen en route north to Scandinavia, and that was our first German excursion over... we saw some awesome locations, met some lovely people, and had a huge amount of fun, so it's a good thing we'll be back soon to see some more!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Bogan times in Belgium

We've just got back to The Netherlands for a brief stop after a week in Belgium, where we had a fantastic time. We were there for the Graspop Metal Meeting, an annual three day metal music bonanza held in an obscure area of North-eastern Belgium for around 100,000 bogans from all over Europe [and two kiwis!], but also spent time travelling around falling in love with tiny Belgian cities.
The music part can come in another post because there was too much awesomeness, and these posts keep getting longer and longer as it is...
So: Belgium.
*Antwerp: on the way to Graspop we spent a day in Antwerp, mostly just wandering around taking in the city. We went inside the Onze-Lieve Vrouwkathedraal [Cathedral of our Lady], which dominates the city skyline, and it was huge and very impressive inside. Antwerp's greatest son, Peter Paul Rubens [a very famous seventeenth century Flemish artist] has a number of works displayed inside as well.
*Bruges: We took off to the Western side of Northern Belgium [Flanders] straight after Graspop, and within two minutes walk of the train station, we found our new favourite town in Europe. This place is phenomenal. It has a reputation for being the best-preserved medieval city in Europe, and completely deservedly so! It is full of tiny narrow streets, large gothic buildings, two big beautiful central squares, medieval designed houses, fantastic parks, and the ruins of the medieval town fortifications. We had a fantastic time just walking around and exploring, stopping for the occasional picnic in one of the parks to sample a few tasty [and cheap!] Belgian beers from the supermarkets. We did a brewery tour, of the last brewery left in Bruges - [the narrow streets, though fun for walking around, don't make for the easiest mass-transportation of beers in a modern context, so most of the breweries have shut down or moved out of town.] It was really interesting to see both the pared-down, stainless steel, lights and buttons and levers modern brewing room, and the four floors of copper and barrels and vats and pipes that it used to take to produce beer there. We also got to go out on to the roof of the brewery and take in the fantastic view. Included in our tour was [of course!] a beer-the brewery was called Brugse Zot and they only make two varieties now, a blonde and a dubbel, and the blonde they serve on tap is unfiltered - but it was delicious. So much so, that we tried the dubbel as well - intense and tasty.
*Ghent: We spent two days in Ghent, which isn't as well-preserved as Bruges, and has actually tried to improve it's reputation as a tourist destination by 'creating' medieval buildings, most of which were built in the early twentieth century and are not even remotely authentic. All the same, it was another beautiful town, and had a series of fantastic huge cathedrals/churches. It also has the advantage of possessing it's very own castle [which has, apparently, been 'creatively restored' but is still awesome.] We took a tour around the castle, which included a large selection of torture instruments - wow those medieval jailers must have had some sick ideas! We also poked around the massive botanical gardens located in the outskirts of the city, very cool.
*Brussels: We took a day trip to Brussels on the way back to The Netherlands, and spent it crossing the city taking in the sights. We saw the European Parliament, the Palace of Justice, a number of huge, impressive churches, and of course, that bizarre Belgian symbol - Manneken Pis -the statue of the little boy peeing [Manneken Pis is Dutch for 'little man pee' - great.] We also found out that there is actually a corresponding little girl statue, called Jeanneke Pis, erected by a restaurant owner in 1985, but as the restaurant has closed down, she no longer pees, but she's still there, and still bizarre!

T. I. H.

Once again we've been off travelling, and away from internet, so there's some catching up to do.
Just one more quick note about the Netherlands first...
T.I.H. is a phrase you learn to use rather quickly around stands for This Is Holland and is used frequently by the international students to refer to the peculiarities of everyday dutch life. Kind of like 'only in america' with a european twist.
*Almost everything is closed on Monday morning, apparently because the shops now open on Saturdays... so the workers take Monday morning off to make up for it. This applies not just to small family-run businesses, but big department stores and nationwide chains. Or they could just hire more staff...?
*As an aside, we found out that a library in The Hague also follows this policy, opening at noon on Monday...even though it is closed on the weekend...
*The three of us were walking along a road by a canal on our way to the train station, finishing our beers as we went. A police car pulled up alongside us, and the officer leaned out her window and told us it was forbidden to drink outside in the city centre. We apologised and were about to discard our vessels when she said to us "so next time, just remember to hide them better, you need to be more sneaky" and drove off...
*Absolutely everyone goes everywhere on their bikes. Most of which have special adaptations so that they can conduct their everyday lives while balancing on two wheels, such as big barrows out the front, bags hanging off every available surface, and some with up to three child/baby seats attached. Or then there's those who just have a plain straight bike, and ride home from the supermarket twisted around with one hand holding a crate of beer behind them...
*Because supermarkets close quite early, there are a plethora of 'night shops' around every town... which evidently take their name quite seriously, because they don't open till evening. But then they close at only around 10 or 11pm - T.I.H. They could do with a starmart, aye.
*Far more popular than generic fast food, around here the grease and cholesterol cravings are filled by deep-fried croquettes, deep-fried sausages or deep-fried noodles, and these are available on most streets and train stations from a place called Febo, that dispenses them from coin-operated holes in the wall. So fresh and tasty! :-S

There have been heaps more times we have had to use this phrase, but this is enough of an introduction to T.I.H. :-D