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Tot Ziens

Somehow this journey has come to an end. Although we have ahead of us several weeks’ experiment in unplanned holiday-making in France, our time in Belgium is essentially up. And it would not seem right to end In Belgium, in France.

So, tot ziens!

Thank you for joining the ride, perhaps I will be able to offer you another sometime soon.

Now, onto life’s next adventure, in . . .

It Has Been a While Since Visitors Passed This Way

Although I would like to pride myself on being a hearty traveler, I suppose everyone has their breaking point. Late May,wearing my winter coat, in the rain, Bamberg, Germany, I hit it.

The excursion to the eastern Franconia region of Germany was to be a practice run for our campsite routine and an opportunity to sample the legendary brews at the outdoor kellers, or beer gardens. The weather reports depicted low temperatures with the chance of rain, but we had prevailed over an Ireland-like trip through Italy with daily showers and were confident we could do so again.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Then it began to rain. It did not stop. My fingers grew cold despite my gloves — gloves! May! These were followed by my nose and toes. After 24-hours of saturation even the dependable little tent sighed as its seams began to weep. After a long winter and the coldest spring in 60 years, the weather had beaten us down and we retreated, by way of a detour to the “Romantic Road,” back to Belgium.

Perhaps we should have known better than to try our luck at another tourist destination during an excursion bogged down in ill fate. Or perhaps we are the kind of couple of irony who, looking to redeem a trying trip with a little romance, find the Romantic Road closed.

Apparently, as part of the country-wide infrastructure stimulus package, the Romantic Road is under construction.  The detour signs lead us away from the promise of charming towns and idyllic views, past visitor information signs crackled with time and outdated with irrelevance.

Meistertrunk Festival

Eventually we made it to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, called the best preserved medieval city in Europe, with which I could not disagree. It was there that we were reaped the rewards of our weather-induced travel traumas.

The only draw back to this gem is that it suffers from serious overcrowding
Frommer’s Germany

Warm and Welcome

Unless, that is, you are there at 5 p.m. on a gray, wet and cold Thursday in May. Why, then you have the city wall ramparts entirely to yourself (they are covered too, conveniently enough). And it will be just you and a handful of random other soggy visitors who catch part of the city’s annual celebration of itself: a parade of locals — men, women and children — dressed up in medieval costume who parade around town and congregate at the Rathaus (city hall) all for their own amusement and not for ours.

Of course, all this whining is meant in jest, at least partially. We saw lovely towns, sampled some of the best beers in the world, enjoyed the historic beer hall culture and ate hearty meats laid atop mounds of sauerkraut. But my memory will be struck with that sense of appreciation for the fact that the locals seemed as peeved about the weather as me. In response, and to my relief, they cranked up those ceramic-tiled ancient wood stoves and kept their places cooking.

Godfrey All Around

Most people have been in this place before: You obsess over some particular subject/object/person and they keep appearing before your eyes. Only, typically, what you think you see is not what is actually before you.

In a twist on this, I have discovered that Godfrey is everywhere. To refresh the memories of those whom I have not dulled into a stupor with endless yammering, Godfrey of Bouillon is the subject of the book that I am writing. It is a novel, but based on the lives a several real people, including Godfrey himself. Although work proceeds slowly, I do think about it a lot. When I am not actually writing or reading through medieval history, in my head I replay scenes, untangle unnecessarily complicated sections and develop dialogue.

In the last few weeks, however, I have become eerily aware that my characters keep getting up and walking out of my head and onto the street in front of me. Here in Belgium, a Godfrey statue in Brussels or certainly Bouillon is expected. But he keeps showing up elsewhere as well.

In Rome, at the Vatican Museum, I was diligently reading through the Blue Guide descriptions of the Raphael Stanze and Loggia when Godfrey waved hello, sitting beside Ethelwulf of England — as well as a few tourists.

But it is not just Godfrey who keeps popping into my life; other characters are making unexpected appearances.

In the ruins of the Orval Abbey, I stepped up to one of the explanatory tables to read about the abbey myth of the lady, her ring and a fish. The story I knew already from the logo on the Orval beer bottle: a fish with a ring in its mouth. Evidently this unnaturally thoughtful trout delivered the ring back to the lady after she dropped it in the spring. There before me was the so-called spring (still used to feed the revered brown bottles of Orval brew) and the place where, upon receiving her ring back, Mathilda, declared that the waters must be sacred indeed and . . . Wait. That Mathilda? As in the daughter of the evil stepmother to Godfrey and the one who is married off to his hunchback uncle? Yes, indeed. And Mathilda waves hello.

Then, last night, we were watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, so that I could point out to a certain non-aficionado where the Venice square in which we sipped cappuccino appears in the film. The Jones boys have escaped Brunwald Castle when Dr. Jones, Sr. explains the threat of holy grail booby traps.

But I found the clues that will safely take us through, in the Chronicles of St. Anselm.

I am pretty sure Anselm was not writing choose-your-own-adventure material back in the Middle Ages. He was, however, corresponding with a certain Ida, Countess of Boulogne, also known as the mother of Godfrey of Bouillon. In my own novelization of his achievements I have him gliding in at the right moment to help save the day, not that far off from writing clues to hidden treasures.

“Hello!” Anselm hails me from the screen.

Belgian-African Dinner

Belgian cuisine typically evokes images of frites and mussels, waffles and chocolate. Less commonly does the visitor think of the international suggestions on a potential Belgian menu, suggestions that come from far further than France or Germany.

I enjoy the friendship of a Belgian who grew up in the Congo. As with each of us, she holds deep nostalgic hunger for the foods of her childhood. Fortunate for me, this takes the form of a Congolese meal of moambe,  broiled bananas, sauteed manioc leaves and rice. The main dish consists of chicken stewed with onions in a spiced palm oil. (Click here for a recipe.) My friend adds a bay leaf and thyme for an authentically Belgian touch. The manioc are leaves of what Americans may be more familiar with as the yuca plant. (Click here for a recipe.) The trick: these greens are poisonous. A hearty dose of boiling eliminates the toxins, and a handy prepared can of the vegetable alleviates the need (and evidently foul odor) of having to do that yourself.

The resulting meal may not plate pretty, but the indescribably luscious and new flavors even re-imagined now trigger stomach growls of desire.

Personal Souvenirs

The clay class that I joined in town has drawn to a close. We have finished sculpting, then firing, glazing, then firing again. This weekend I picked up my pieces, which remarkably survived the threat of cracks and breaks in the preparation process.

The primary project was the previously mentioned clay chicken. She became known as the 50-pound chicken, based on the fact that both firing/glazing fees are calculated by weight and I must somehow carry this lady over the Atlantic. She is glazed in a lovely dolomite recipe created by the artist who runs to class, Christiane Zeghers. I look forward to demonstrating her silliness and that of each of her half-dozen chick-size egg cups.

At the end of class, with about half a session to fill, I decided to also create personal souvenirs from our stay in the form of ceramic magnets. Each subject I selected for its nostalgic appeal  to different eras of Belgian memories: the house in which I lived as a child, the chapel where my husband and I were married and the front door of our home these past few months. There is something very satisfying about both making your own souvenirs and also tailoring them to your emotional imagination.

Although the weather may not have reflected the idyllic Italian May we had envisioned after a long, cold Northern European winter, we were not entirely disappointed. Spring was in the air, quite literally. The fragrances wafted about from jasmine hedges, flowering bitter orange trees, wet cedars and honey suckle. And wild flowers abounded around and atop the Roman ruins and throughout every country hillside.

Ah, the hillsides. Above the city of Florence and its teaming masses of tourists and students shuffling from David to the Uffizi, in the sleepy town of Fiesole, we took advantage of a generous invitation of hospitality. As much as the artistic wonders that the city contains wowed us, we were enchanted by the green hills that repeated endlessly into the horizon. Olive trees punctuated the panorama and meandering streets contained in old stone walls wound though our view from the front step. We hiked through blazed paths that led us by castles and ancient olive groves filled with red poppies, purple thistles and countless other yellows and whites and pinks in the tall grass.

Although Fiesole was only a bus ride away from the center of Florence, it provided a sigh of relief. We sat under a cafe veranda with a bottle of wine overlooking the red roof tiles packed in around the massive dome of the cathedral in the valley below. Another day, we walked up to the Franciscan monastery perched at the highest point of the town and hid under the exterior cloister while we watched a violent lightning storm submerge Florence and then race up the hillside toward us.

Amongst these scenes of natural beauty that strike memories urging us to return, we found in Fiesole smaller moments as well. At the town cemetery I was stunned (and relieved) to find a public, and clean, toilet. How thoughtful of them to consider what I assume must be the parade of devoted old ladies that hike up this hill to pay their respects. We also stopped briefly in the cemetery. Each stone held a photograph of the person remembered. Most were elderly, but not all. One stone marked the grave of a couple. His picture showed a charming young man, killed during the war. Her picture, beside his, was of a woman in her sixties, buried next to her husband, forty years later.

I stand firmly by the belief that a cliche tour of Italy — Rome – Florence – Venice — is a very worthy endeavor indeed. My gut, however, forces me to look for something a little different even within a predictable schedule. After a nearly lifelong tradition of the exceptional tour I cannot help but revel in unusual delights.

This is not to say that we uncovered some unknown gem nor came upon an unvisited secret corner of these mightily visited cities. But here and there we found unpredicted delights, sometimes in the most predictable locations.

In Rome it began at the Vatican Museum. Accidently on line for the opening hour (since I had the times wrong) we entered with the first few hundred guests. But as they — and they consisted mostly of locust-swarming group tours — made a beeline for the Sistine Chapel, we headed to the picture gallery. And there we stood before three massive Raphael masterpieces, with our backs to tapestries he designed, entirely alone. Several hours later we were body-to-body (and body-to-lunch!) with the hoards standing beneath Michelangelo’s ceiling, but for that brief moment, we had the masters to ourselves.

Still in Rome, on a certainly well-known and yet oddly unpracticed trip out of town, we took the train to Ostia Antica. There lies an entire forgotten city of ancient Rome. Blue Guide in hand, we worked our way through tall grass into and out of rooms and courtyards, we charted our way by frescoes, old wine bars that took little imagination to reanimate and lively mosaics that patterned the floors of baths and gyms and living rooms. Our reliance on what I think of as alternative tour books — the Blue Guide and a Wallpaper* City Guide — endowed us with informative as well as fun insight. After all, we may not have gone searching down the Cardo Maximus for the “striking” mosaic at the doorway to a 4th century home.

Rome even managed to surprise us when we took only a few steps off the well-trodden tourist lanes. With take-away pizza from a well-known spot on the tourist-saturated Palazzo Navona, a little ways away we found a slighty dingy square with several benches, a dramatically arguing couple and this lovely fellow watching us all from his window perch. Now, with calendars at every souvenir shop touting “Cats of Rome,” this is nothing extraordinary, but enjoying a postcard moment without a postcard shop in sight proved pleasant enough.