Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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.


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I refuse to pay the full admission to the Rijksmuseum, which claims to be “open” but has a measly fraction of its collection actually on display. The shell of scaffolding and the lack of any apparent progress underneath that layer may not dissuade the line of tourists outside its side “entrance,” but I will not stand for it. Not for 14 euros, at any rate.

That left two museums on the Amsterdam to-do list: the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh Museum. The first I had never been to, the second I visit any time I happen to find myself in town. They are, of course, two very different places.

The Anne Frank House was a place to be. The simplicity of the arrangement — mostly empty rooms with excerpts from The Diary of Anne Frank included in a few displays. It required time and slow moving to recall the story of the families who hid there and a smart young girl with a diary. It made for a very personal experience — even if we were swamped by a tour group of French teenagers.

A visit to the Van Gogh Museum, on the other hand, cannot help but be a very public and often contact sport. First there is the game plan strategy: spotting the empty pocket of space into which I jump and then ride the current of shuffling feet. Then, there is the general hum about the place. While this is not the ideal way to enjoy art, there is something nice about the fact that the chatter is generally about the work itself or, at the very least, the artist. So, whereas it may sound like a loud cocktail lounge at times, there is a satisfaction in knowing that these two little old ladies here are talking about the color and those kids over there are pointing out the subject. Or, you could wear headphones to cancel the noise and add a soundtrack to the drama of those strokes.

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Under Brussels

There is a city under the city here in Brussels. It evidently took them some time to find it, but there it was, perched upon by the Place Royale.

At the end of the 18th century a royal banquet hall called Aula Magna, which had been built in 300 years before, was plowed over to build a new square: Place Royale. Nearly two centuries later archeologists rediscovered the basement ruins, along with a medieval church and even a lane that once ran between the two.

In the meantime, some of these stone and brick spaces had been incorporated into the structures above: as wine cellars for the Bellevue Hotel during the 19th century and as archive storage rooms for the Lloyds Bank during the 20th century.

Today is it a historical secret charm in the city center. We walked along the now covered cobbled street of Rue Isabelle; wandered around the massive stone pillars that once held a chapel’s vaulted ceiling; passed by sewer pits and drainage channels.

For the inner archeologist-geek in us the greatest thrill was inside the remains of the Aula Magna itself, the last portion of this underground city to be unearthed. We could hear the trams rumble by overhead on the cement slab that now secures the site. In the kitchen the elegant tiled flooring from the once-majestic banquet hall above lays flat where it collapsed. Against the walls old hearths upon which meals were made can still be seen.

And in one section, history can be read from a slice of striated ruins: the large white stone pillar heads, individual floor tiles and most fantastic, a clearly distinguishable black line. It marks with charcoal February 3, 1731. That day  the Governess of the Netherlands, Marie-Elisabeth of Austria, sister of the Emperor Charles VI, retired to her apartments in the palace of Brussels without extinguishing the candles. The resulting blaze destroyed half of the palace and led to the demolition that would hide these sites from view for centuries.

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I have trouble writing with the appropriate measures of respect and sadness and honor and awe when it comes to the American military cemeteries overseas. Any word choice ends up sounding trite to my ear. Perhaps this is why images better capture the devastation of war, and fiction has been known to bring to light the feel accurately, often colored by autobiographical experience.

Simple numbers might illustrate at least a point. At the Ardennes American Cemetery and Memorial  lie the remains of 5,328 soldiers from World War II, many of whom lost their lives during the vicious winter and savage attacks of 1945 to 1946 in and around Bastogne. There are crosses and stars over unknown men and somber granite slabs that list the names of those never recovered. Nine pairs of brothers are buried side by side, and brothers in arms remain together forever in single graves.

The most pertinent expression of the site came from our guide of the memorial. The importance of a visit to these sites, he told us, is the individual honor it gives those whose lives ended in the grim times of World War II. Just reading the name on a marker gives life for that moment to a man — or boy — who gave up his chance to live a life of his own.

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Clay Class

I am in a clay class where I am attempting to make a chicken-shaped soft-boiled egg serving bowl. No, it is not just you, that probably does not make sense to anyone else, either. But provided its head and tail do not fall off and its body remains uncracked during the kiln-firing process, perhaps I will invite you for breakfast one morning and you can see what I mean.

The class is run by a local artisan, Christiane Zeghers. Her own work is polished and beautiful and her latest creations take advantage of a technique she developed using a spectrum of rainbow colors. But far from pressured by such perfection, at each weekly session in her vintage atelier, the atmosphere is calm and easy. There are those making masterpieces and then there is me and my chicken. But everyone enjoys the experience, and my Flemish is even improving as I listen to the chatter during the (Belgian mandatory) coffee/tea break.

Belgian pottery comes with quite  pedigree, you might be surprised to discover. Sure the Dutch are known for the Delft blue tiles and the Italians for the talent that was imported to create them, but back in the middle ages, the English could not get enough of the mugs and pitchers from what today is Belgium.

Amongst its pottery of note, during the 15th century salt-glazed stoneware was renown in the potting town of Raeren, which had been producing pottery for at least two hundred years before. The famous blue-gray “Westerwald” jugs with their pitted surfaces — today much duplicated for eager tourists, such as myself — originated here.

Will my chicken live up to such historic proportions? Probably not. But I will still be able to say I was trained in the historic art of Belgian ceramics.

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Actually, it amounted to only four books:

Life in the Middle Ages, by Martyn Whittock

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell

In Search of the Dark Ages, by Michael Wood

The Discarded Image, by C.S. Lewis (Yes, as I said to the bookstore clerk, the Narnia guy.)

With many thanks for the recommendations, I was even able to help support the British Library by purchasing two of the titles at its lovely shop. And I shall enjoy gathering up the gems they offer.

Elsewhere in London, throughout the city’s magnificent museum collections — all free to enjoy — I gathered up a marvelous collection of priceless objects in images and descriptions, many of which I hope will find their way in some form onto the presently blank pages that lie before me to be filled.

These amber and glass beads were made for the neck of a lucky Viking lady.

“I am called ring,” the inscription says.

Look for the carefully chiseled image in the amethyst.

To be sure all your jewelry is straight on the go, this silver compact mirror slips into the smallest traveling bags.

On the road, you need to be especially careful of a bad exchange rate; with your portable scale and carrying case, money measurement is always accurate.

You would never show up at someone’s house for dinner without your own spoon, and this folding one really impresses hosts and fellow guests alike.

Travel means camping out in dark, unknown places, so keep this folding candlestick in your luggage and you can always see the contents of your al fresco meals.

Of course, at home something a little more showy is called for, such as this 3-foot gold candlestick with intricate if creepy carvings.

And it might be from the middle ages, or it might be from that super funky Scandinavian design shop in SoHo: the most awesome walrus tusk chess piece ever.

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February welcomes a new cold snap to Belgium, care of Siberian winds. (Using “Siberian winds” in a weather report is one of those novel delights over here.) This revisits the  government’s lack of familiarity with managing ice and snow — which this morning involved one city employee in a fluorescent winter jacket hand-spreading salt from a sack along a popular bike route towards the train station. And it is a reminder that not all green means are bright, shiny and new.

Our home is an attached house — two green points for reduced exterior wall exposures —  with two stories connected by a whimsical wooden staircase. There are two bedrooms upstairs and a  large living room and cosy kitchen downstairs. Linking these are narrow hallways interrupted regularly by a previous centuries’ green concept: doors.

Unless your house was built more than a  hundred years ago, chances are that there is no door that separates the kitchen from the hall, the hall from the living room, the hall from the stairs, and so forth. So? By dividing the house into distinct units that can be left opened in the summer and secured closed in the winter, less heat need be applied. Consider: how much time do you spend in your hallways? Why heat them?

When originally constructed, the doors provided a means of preserving what heat could be produced, largely by wood-burning stoves or open hearth fireplaces. It was less about the expense of what was burned than the fact that you were not likely to get any room quite warm enough if you were attempting to heat the whole place with one source. Today it is both a green means of lowering our carbon footprint as well as a way of reducing the gas bill. We remain comfortable in the rooms in which we live — the living room, my writing room and the kitchen — and the earth and the coffers remain slightly less depleted in the process.

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