Monday, November 30, 2009

I've not forsaken thee

I've been sort of...absent...as of late. I have very good reasons though. You see, we have been dealing with the nightmare that is a real estate transaction:

I made a whirlwind solo trip to Raleigh to take care of all the last minute details and to oversee the move-out of the last of our worldly possessions. It was a horrid job to have to do on one's own. I don't know why I thought it was a good idea for me to pack everything into the boxes and leave only the heavy lifting to the movers. Next time, I think I'll let them handle the whole kit-and-caboodle.

Anyway. Enough complaining. It's done. The money is sitting pretty in the bank and just waiting to be handed over to another lender as a down payment on our next home. For now, it's a fan-freaking-tastic feeling to be mortgage free. As in, without mortgage. As in, no mortgage payment to make. As in, I'd better transfer that money to a locked-down account before I lose my mind and go completely rogue at Saks.

So now, I am back in the arms of the one who loves me most and getting ready for another great weekend adventure in Dresden, Germany. People, it's Christmas Market season and nobody in the world does Christmas like the Germans. Nobody. I will eat and shop my way through a veritable winter wonderland of culinary treats and shiny baubles.

This week, I'm going to catch up on this here ol' blog because I do have lots to share. Between untold stories of Kolsch in Köln, a date with Edward Cullen, a Thanksgiving to rival Martha Stewart's best efforts, and the official start to the Christmas Market here in Brussels, there is much to tell.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Edjumacated

Veterans Day, Remembrance Day, Armistice Day... Call it what you like. Here, it's a holiday. As in, an actual day off work. (Well, I mean a day off work for people who actually do that sort of thing - work. For me, it meant I got to spend my Wednesday with Jason instead of a grainy, online version of last week's Project Runway episode of questionable origin.)

So after spending the morning on the sofa with cups of coffee in hand and various services and memorials on the tv, we decided to get out and go somewhere. I suggested Waterloo because it's only about fifteen minutes outside of Brussels and what better day to visit an historic battlefield?

And so it was decided. Of course the song by ABBA immediately wormed its way into my brain and took up residence and so help me I sang it all day long. Well, at least I sang the same line over and over. "Waterloo! Couldn't escape if I wanted to... Waterloo! Knowing my fate is to be with you..." Let it be known that Jason has the patience of Job.

First stop was for some lunch. And while perusing the drinks menu, Jason noticed that Waterloo has its own beer (Remember? Just like Mechelen and a host of other cities across Beergium.) And would you look at that? It comes with its very own little clay pottery cup! I am truly a sucker for details. Give me a drink with its own specialty vessel and I'm yours. (Kwak Kwak anyone?)

Next we hit up the museum in the Duke of Wellington's former headquarters. It was from here that he planned his strategy against Napoleon and eventually sent out the victory notice.

The museum held all sorts of interesting artifacts. The audio guide called my attention to this lovely old wooden leg that belonged to the man who died in the very room in which we were standing. Ew. (Also? So not fair that his leg was skinnier than mine.)

After the museum, we drove to the actual battlefield. The Lion Mound was constructed in the middle of it nine years after the battle to commemorate the 9,500+ lives lost on June 18, 1815. Unfortunately it was a very grey and misty day so not the best for purty pikshur takin'. But while we were waiting for the movie to start, I popped outside and played around with the camera settings to see what I could get. I kind of like this result (especially considering the environmental challenges). I even got a tiny, shortlived flash of blue sky as the clouds rolled along.

Just when I thought my legs had recovered from the 538 circular steps of St. Rumbold's Tower, here come 226 more. I was huffin' and puffin' like a chain-smoker by the time I got to the top. I really should consider adding a bit of serious cardio to my workout routine. (And by "workout routine", I mean "walking down the street for a pain au chocolat once a day".)

By this point in the day, it was getting rather chilly. In fact, when you add in the whipping wind that got worse and worse the closer we got to the top, we were freezing. And whipping wind + freezing good picture face.

I have to say, I learned quite a lot about the battle at Waterloo on this little excursion. I'm rather ashamed to say that, prior to this, I actually knew nothing about it other than the fact that it was considered Napoleon's epic fail. I didn't know it was a result of Napoleon going all power crazy. I didn't know it was the Duke of Wellington who defeated him. I didn't know that the Prussians worked with Wellington's British forces to stop him. I didn't even know what Prussia was. I really should have paid attention in Ms. Eskew's world history class.

In the interest of spacing out my entries a little, I'm writing this on Friday and am going to schedule it to post on Sunday - by which time, with any luck, we'll be enjoying the wonders of some little town in France or Germany or Netherlands or Luxembourg or maybe right here in Belgium. When you have the borders of no less than four countries on your doorstep, who knows what the weekend holds?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lady Heather and Lord Jason on a visitation upon Mechelen and 538 circular steps

That title will make sense about four fifths of the way into this post. Just tuck it away for now.

Remember that time we went to Mechelen and there was a big annoying marathon going on and we couldn't even appreciate half of the town because the big annoying marathon had sponsor booths set up all over the grote markt and barricades all over the streets and I was just straight up annoyed? Well, now that we're all caught up....

Last weekend we decided to use the absolutely beautiful Sunday bestowed upon us to go back and explore the rest of this charming Flemish town. We were extra appreciative of the sun's sweet rays after the cloudy/drizzly/lazy Saturday we had the day before.

Cloudy because well, let's face it - this is western Europe. In November.

Drizzly for the same reasons.

And lazy because we continue to torture ourselves by staying up until 3:30 in the morning to listen to the Carolina Hurricanes live game broadcasts online. And if you don't know why this is torture, then you are clearly not following the NHL. Check the standings if you're curious. Personally, I can't even look at it anymore. Hurts my eyes. My head. My heart. How a team goes from playing in the Eastern Conference Finals one season to dead last in the league the next is truly beyond me.

Anyway, let's get this train back on the tracks, shall we? Our personally guided (by us) walking tour begins at the grote markt, and specifically with the town hall. Mechelen's town hall is pretty interesting because it's actually two buildings, with three distinct facades. On the right is the older half, circa 14th century. In the middle, you can see what was supposed to become a grand belfry but was left unfinished due to lack of funds. For two hundred years, the belfry was just a shell. In the 16th century, what was supposed to be a temporary roof was finally put on it. Turns out...not so temporary. More like permanent.

The flamboyant Gothic part on the left wasn't completed until the early 20th century.

As you can probably imagine just by looking at him, this little statue has a pretty colorful history. He's called Op-Sinjoorke and is the mascot of Mechelen. The original doll, made in 1647, is hauled out for ceremonial processions and thrown into the air by means of a large sheet of cloth - which is what this sculpture depicts.

He was originally called Sotscop (Dumbhead) or Vuilen Bruidegom (Foul Bridegroom) after drunk husbands who smacked their wives around. Divorce was not allowed back then so the tossing around of the doll was supposed to symbolically punish the men. Yeah. That toooootally makes up for getting the crap beat out of you by your husband and not being able to leave him, right? *facepalm*

He got his current name in 1775 when he was tossed a little too vigorously and an onlooker from Antwerp put out his arms to ward off the doll but was instead accused of trying to steal it. He successfully plead his innocence and Sotscop was renamed Op-Sinjoork, the nickname for people from Antwerp.

This statue of Margaret of Austria was the product of the Belgian government asking cities to honor the country's heroes. Mechelen was the only one to choose a heroine.

Best fact about Margaret: Twice she was arranged to marry. The first, set when she was only three to the thirteen year old future king of France, was called off by the time she turned eleven because her intended found himself a better match. The second was arranged when she was sixteen - to the future king of Spain. On the sea voyage to Spain, they ran into a severe storm and Margaret thought she was going to die so she wrote her own epitaph. "Here lies Margriet, the sweet maiden, who had two husbands and yet died a virgin." HA! Loves it!

Next up was St. Rumbold's Tower - which you can see to the right of Margaret in the photo above. Or if your fingers are too tired to scroll back up, here's a photo of the Tower from our previous visit. Fact: The tower was never completed, again - due to lack of funds. That's why it has that sort of lopped off look about it instead of coming to a point like most.

Last time we were here, we saw that you could climb it (all 538 steps of it) but for whatever reason, we just couldn't be bothered. That, and also it costs about seven euros a person... I was all, "For seven euros I want a damned elevator!" But we later read that it's not just a climb for the views. It's actually a tour of the inner workings of the carillons. (That would be "bells" to us simple folk.) So, we decided to have a go.

I forgot what the audio guide said about this giant hamster wheel. I was too excited about staging a photo to pay attention.

It may be hard to believe but the audio guide was fascinating. I was enthralled. And it takes quite a lot to enthrall me. I was so enthralled with my audio commentator that you can imagine my shock when the bells started ringing. About five feet from my head. I almost wet my pants.

I won't even pretend to know how this whole thing works. Let's just go all Facebook status and say "it's complicated" and leave it at that.

Finally we made it to the top! Gorgeous views of Mechelen and beyond surrounded us. You could even see bits of Brussels in the distance. Namely, the Atomium. It's rather hard to miss that monstrosity.

Too bad I couldn't stop laughing long enough to get a decent photo.

This is the best we got. And it's still pretty obvious that I'm biting it back. I don't even recall why we were laughing. It was almost a week ago fer cryin' out loud. I can barely remember what I had for breakfast.

After braving vertigo to get back down the 538 circular steps, the walk continues...albeit on very shaky legs. Seriously. Walk down 538 circular steps and tell me what your legs feel like. I thought they were going to flat out collapse beneath me.

We made our way past the Melaan, an old brook that used to run through the city...

... and Klapgat, or Gossip Alley - where, sadly no one was gossiping...

...some very ornate street signs, of which there are three in Mechelen...

...and finally, Sint-Pieter-en-Paulkerk. But I really only put this picture up so I could tell you that this church is now (due to a very lengthy story which I shall not recount here) officially called "St. Peter and St. Paul on a visitation upon St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier".

By this time, we were ready for some refreshment. Luckily our walking tour dropped us off right back at the grote markt. Genius! Time for a glass of Mechelen's finest. (Pretty much every city and town here has their own brew. Mechelen's is Gouden Carolous.)

And don't forget the frites. Tell me, are these not the most deliciously perfect frites you've ever clapped eyes on?

And while we waited for the three o'clock carillon concert to float down from St. Rumbold's tower, we were serenaded by the local organ grinder.

All in all, a near-perfect day. It narrowly misses "perfect" only because I woke up the next morning with my aching legs practically unable to hold up the rest of my body. I walked from the bed to the coffee maker legs bent and hunched over so as not to have to endure the pain of stretching out my calves. This went over well with Jason.

Oh how he laughed.

Oh how I scowled.

Oh how he taunted.

Oh how I threatened to lace his coffee with Thai chili paste.

Oh how he shut up.


Friday, November 06, 2009

Clocking a few more miles on the Audi

And away we go. Long-time readers will know that Jason and I have a tendency to just jump in the car and go somewhere, bringing along a few essentials in case we decide we're having too much fun to leave. And last weekend, we did just that. We got up Saturday morning, said "Hey, what should we do this weekend?" and decided to let google do the talking.

After a few internet queries, we decided we were driving to Hasselt - a small town about an hour's drive from Brussels. We also found out that in a neighboring village, there was a 16th century castle that housed a brewery. That was about all we needed to know so we threw a few things in an overnight bag and hit the road.

But not before a quick stop for breakfast. Yes, in Belgium, this is what passes for breakfast. In any other country this would be dessert.

The real reason for the fuel up was that we were waiting for the Tiffany across the street to open. Don't get too excited for me. My Facebook family probably already know that one of my most precious possessions was lost recently.

For my 30th birthday, Jason gave me my very first piece of Tiffany jewelry - a gold Elsa Peretti bean necklace. I treasured it. It was my go-to necklace. I wore it almost every day. And it recently fell off my neck without my knowledge. I was in a hurry getting dressed and I'm sure I just didn't clasp it properly. When I realized what had happened, I was inconsolable. Jason insists on replacing it so there we were, patiently waiting to go in and see if they had it. (They didn't - but they've ordered one for me.)

So, back to the business at hand...

We arrive in Hasselt with no problems and immediately set out to enjoy the gorgeous day. And I do mean gorgeous. I'm talking light sweater and a scarf gorgeous. Blue skies gorgeous. Fall leaves gorgeous.

This is kind of funny to me... I took this photo because I liked the background of yellow leaves and the red awning and the way the sun was laying. And when I was going through the pics, trying to decide which ones to use, it occurred to me that this looks like a regular sized statue. You know, average statue size. Eight, nine, maybe 10 feet or more. Pretty big. But in reality, it's only about a foot and a half tall. I don't know. It's probably only funny to me now that I think about it... But dang if I haven't gone and written a whole diatribe about it and I'm not deleting it.

Time for lunch and some Belgian refreshment. As per usual, blonde for me and brune for the mister.

Up next was the National Genever Museum! Boy, do I love me some culture. This is the third appearance for genever on this blog. (Surely you've not forgotten but in case you have, first and second appearances are here and here.)


It was very hands on...



And the distillery is still in operation - one of only a handful left in Belgium.

And then it was time for the tasting. My previous genever experiences had been by and large pleasant. (Despite Phil, Suze and Jason peer pressuring me into knocking one of mine back so we could make our boat tour.) I mean, it's flavored gin. It'll be tasty, right? Sure, I prefer vodka but it's flavored gin. How bad can it be? Cheers!

And what follows is my reaction, en triptyque:

"Okay. It's in my mouth. Hmmm. That's a wee bit stronger than I thought it would be. Okay. OMG it's really f**king strong!"

This is my "Jason, do I really have to swallow this? Please tell me I can spit it out. Please? No? Really???" face.

"OMG, my lungs are on fire! Seriously, this might be medical! My lungs are aflame!!"

I recovered pretty quickly. Let it be known that I am not afraid to make a damn fool of myself.

After some strolling around, we made our way back to the Grote Mart for a cafe stop. I love the front of this pub, Drugstore. This is actually where we had lunch (and the blonde and brune) earlier.

The clock tower at dusk...

Okay. This is kind of a funny story. Well, it cracked us up anyway... Since we are so fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants about travel sometimes, we don't always get our first choice of hotel. The extent of availability upon our arrival in Hasselt amounted to the Holiday Inn. (As Holiday Inns go, I have to be fair and say that it was actually pretty nice. Recently updated, tastefully decorated, immaculately clean and excellent bedding to boot.)

Upon check-in, we were told that we were cordially invited to the Halloween "after-party" in the hotel bar. "After" what? No idea. I wanted to ask her why she didn't invite us to the party before the after-party. So after dinner, instead of retiring to our room, we hit up the after-party. Things were just starting to get cranking.

There were bowls of dry ice (which the bar staff had to pour pitchers of water into about every three minutes to make it do its thing) and a smoke machine (which set off the hotel fire alarm three times) and even a DJ (who played to a totally empty dance floor but seemed to be pretty into the tunes himself). We stayed just long enough to be able to say for the rest of our lives that "We went to a Halloween after-party at a Belgian Holiday Inn."

The next morning, we awoke to find that we were the only people in the whole town who weren't at church. Which provided us hell-bound heathens the perfect opportunity for a self-portrait on the empty streets.

And then it was time to find the castle brewery, Ter Dolen. A mere 15 minute drive away, we found it and also found ourselves surrounded by countryside. How amazing is this?

Autumn, schmautumn. Whatever. Show me the beer.

As we were a little early for the tour (which turned out to be yet another hilarious H&J adventure), we went on in and got ourselves a little preview taste by the cosy fire and wall o' logs.

Blonde for me (and tripel for Jason this time).

Upon finishing our beers, we found that we still had time to kill before the tour. So we went for a country walk. Well, Jason walked. I frolicked.

Upon finishing our walk/frolick, we found that we still had time to kill before the tour. So we went back into the cosy castle pub and had ourselves another little preview taste. And some cheese. I saw some people had a little bowl of cheese cubes and if they get to have cheese cubes, I want cheese cubes too. So I sent Jason to fetch the cheese. He came back with this:

Not only do the brew their own beer here at Ter Dolen, they make their own cheese as well! So we got ourselves half a wheel and dug in.

And finally, it was time for the tour to commence. So we headed over to the meeting point and followed the guide into the brewery. And the tour commenced. In Dutch. 100% Dutch. It's a shame we don't speak Dutch because the guide must have been very entertaining. The whole crowd broke into laughter about every five minutes. We just played along and took pictures of the things the guide pointed at.

Though I did quite like this keystone over an archway, and not only because it's got my initials carved into it. The guide probably told a very witty story about the significance of the year 1643, but we wouldn't know anything about that.

Jason with his loot.

So, Ter Dolen brew castle - check. What next? Well, we can either call it a trip and head back to Brussels or....we can get out the iPhone and see what's nearby. And that's how we discovered the town of Aachen, Germany - roughly 40 miles away from our current location.

And that's how we came to be in three different countries in one day. You see, we had to drive through a little patch of Netherlands to get to Aachen. (Though we didn't actually visit anywhere in Netherlands, so it hardly counts.)

Aachen is most known for its connection with Charlemagne and is pretty much chock full of history. I'll try not to bore you but one of the most interesting buildings here is the town hall, because of the many transformations it's gone through over time. Allow me to break it on down:
  • It was originally built in the Gothic style in the 14th century.
  • After it was severely damaged by a town fire in 1656 and re-styled in Baroque.
  • When Friedrich Wilhelm IV came to power in 1840, he ordered a transformation that was more in keeping with the building's history and the neo-Gothic restoration began.
  • It was heavily damaged by bomb raids in 1943 and 44 and after a very long rebuilding period, we have the structure that stands today.
However, I don't know a thing about this building. I just like the colorful window panels.

And this takes first prize for the strangest fountain I've ever laid eyes on. Working our way down from the top: It's capped off by a large rooster, which sits atop a fully armored soldier on a horse.

Let's take a closer look at the base. Every fountain needs a few Medieval death masks, yes?

And marionettes. Marionettes with moveable arms. (We know that for a fact. We moved them.)

You cannot turn your back on him for one second. He'll be heading towards the free samples faster than you can say gingerbread.

I love love love the skinny little buildings - look at the blue one! So twee!

Looking back through the photos, I'm unsure why I took a photo of a birdbath. A rather elaborate birdbath; but a birdbath all the same. Uh, enjoy?

The cathedral in Aachen is truly something to behold. It's massive. There's no where you can stand and fit it in one photo. Some facts for you:
  • It is the final resting place of Charlemagne, who died in 814.
  • Between 936 and 1531, thirty kings and twelve queens were anointed, crowned and throned here.
  • During the Middle Ages, it was one of the most important Christian places of pilgrimage, on par with Jerusalem and Rome.
  • The Aachen Pilgrimage has been taking place every seven years since 1349.
  • The next one is in 2014.
The cathedral has evolved over a span of twelve hundred years:
  • The octagon with the cupola there on the right in the photo below is the core of the site and was completed in 800.
  • The gothic choir, on the right in the above photo (also called the Aachen glasshouse, for obvious reasons) and the north and south chapels were added in the 14th and 15th centuries.
  • The Hungarian Chapel, on the bottom left of the photo below, was added in he 18th century.
  • And the tower on the left was completed in 1884.
I know that's probably just a lot of arbitrary numbers to most of you but I think it's pretty damn impressive.

Ummm, it was pretty fancy on the inside. This whole ceiling design is in mosaic tiles. And this is just a small corner of it. You wouldn't believe the vastness of it, especially when you consider it in terms of half-inch tiles. I'm thinking of doing this in our next house.

There were all sorts of random things strewn amongst the otherwise abstract patters on the ceilings. My favorite was this rooster.

We had a fit over this little pub that was tucked right onto the side of the town hall. So of course, we had to pop in for a beer.

But not before we made friends with the horse that was standing guard.

We asked the guy behind the bar about the place and he said it was about 300 years old and used to be a library, but had been a pub for about a hundred years. It occurs to me now, as I write this, that we didn't ask about the horse. Damn.

In closing, we had better luck on the hotel front in Aachen. It was rather posh. In fact, it even had a spa. Which is exactly where we went after our beer in the library-cum-pub. After a massage and a lounge by the infinity pool, we were well-rested and ready for the short drive back to Brussels.

My life is not so bad I think.

(Disclaimer - I haven't proofread this because Jason's in the kitchen cooking dinner all by himself and I feel bad so I'm rushing off... Hold me not accountable for my mistakes.)