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Archive for the ‘Tours’ Category

Amsterdam appears to be forcefully redefining its public image. I dare to suggest that Amsterdamers themselves never had any doubt about its nature, but city officials seem intent to present a better image to the general public outside. So when a certain disreputable commentator from the United States described the city as a “cesspool of corruption and crime” (which not surprisingly makes no sense at all) two residents, supported by the local tourist bureau came out with the Youtube video “The Truth About Amsterdam.” The country then gave itself the Citymarketing Innovation Award as a little pack-thyself-on-the-back.

Less original but even more alluring to me, for the first time this year Amsterdam, the International Bulb Center and the Tulip Museum got together to plant a whole lot of tulips in public spaces, museum gardens and even a few backyards. This is their attempt “to revive the city as a tulip capital.”

Ten euros bought us a scavenger map, descriptions of the plantings and admission to some rarely seen regal Amsterdam corners. The best by far were the backyard gardens. Some of these were the central spaces behind small museums — Museum Van Loon, Museum Geelvinck Hinlopen, Prins Bernard Cultuurfonds and the Museum Willet-Holthuysen — situated in former canal-side mansions donated back in the day for their current curatorial life. 

Even more remarkable were the equally stately private homes in which Amsterdamers currently live. These included a small patio garden reached through a basement-level kitchen in perfect yellow, the mayor’s home and a dashing estate with a view of the kitchen — vintage silver and china set on display, along with the gentleman of the house eating his lunch.

Of course the biggest garden of them all is Keukenhof, which we had strolled for three hours on a previous day. Between the two tulip tours we witnesses greater shape, height, texture, saturation, density and color variety than I had ever imagined possible in a tulip. There were brand new hybrids, wild varieties and heirloom selections.

Of course, the practical Dutch included in the Tulpen Dagen Passepartout an honest caveat in the guide’s introduction: “Let’s hope they will all be in full bloom!”

They were not. A cold spring has not been overly inviting to the tulips.

But that just meant some of the most notable bulbs were the tulips’ often overlooked companion: the daffodil. This too came in many more varieties than I could have guessed. Some grew with clumps of flowers on each stem. Another in white and creamy orange was called “Butter and Eggs”. But the most memorable was the densely petaled “Narcissus odorus plenus,” which three months of high school Latin meant smelling either really good or really bad.

I took a chance. The flower rewarded generously.

Narcissus odorus plenus

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In preparation for The Great Tulip Caper I have been biking for about a month now. I have pedaled through outer space, several professional kitchens, a medieval church and several soccer pitches. That is to say, my exercise has been confined to a stationary bike in the living room, in front of the television or a book. To test my progress (and assess the very feasibility of The Great Tulip Caper — more about that later) we ventured out onto the road on a couple of locally rented bikes.

Fairly quickly two ideas of relief spring to mind: Holland’s tulip fields are absolutely flat, as opposed to mostly flat, and Belgians love cobblestones much more than the Dutch.

There we were pedaling through serene wooded parks, no one around but the cheering birds in the trees. Them wam, or wama-wama-wama-wama-wama-wama-wama-wama-wama. The dirt path turns into an old cobblestone lane, much to my teeth- and bone-chattering chagrin. What I had once admired as a beautiful and historic aesthetic touch to Belgium was now slamming my soft brain into the hard sides of my skull. Think I’m exaggerating? Just take a look at this video link.

But relief was soon within sight. Accompanying the Flanders bike route maps is a brochure listing each of the watering holes that your green line of progress passes through. And by water, I mean beer. In Bierbeek we selected In de Molen, which just happened to also be mentioned in someone’s Good Beer Guide to Belgium. Although an unimpressive yellow brick building from the outside, inside we sat at polished wooden tables beneath heavy wooden beams in the company of locals sipping their afternoon beer or coffee. The refreshing La Trappe Wit helped dull the bike-seat pain and hush the whirring in my ears from the parts of my brain that had liquefied. Nourished by a tiny bowl of cheese cubes, served with compliments beside your beer, we set off to further explore the local countryside.

Biking the rural landscape around our little city proved one of the best ways to casually explore its lovely bits and pieces. Past ancient farmsteads and more recent castles, we stopped and admired the green pastures, growing fields and livestock: a typical mix of cows, sheep and, of course, emus.

Emus? Yes. Emus.

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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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In Belgium, prostitution is legal, as it is in most Western European countries. The operation of brothels is still illegal, despite occasional efforts to upend that regulation, but this does not stop business growth, or so it would seem. The ability of officials to avert their eyes is fairly astounding when you consider the Antwerp tourism folk actually have a sex map to the city. Forget Rubens or that dull cathedral, check out the 51-suite “mega-brothel.”

When opening a place of your own, industry form seems to mandate brightly colored neon lights displayed on at least some part of your building’s facade. I suppose this way your customers don’t mistakenly end up ringing Granny Berte’s bell next door. See, these suburban brothels are, for the most part, simple houses along a main drag just outside of the town center, really no different from their neighbors, save the neon and the establishment name out front.

That brings up marketing rule number two: a name. Of the dozen or so establishments that we identified heading back to town the other day, the range is impressive. Sure, some lacked creativity: Lorelei, Camella, Betty, Linda . . . oh, wait, those last two ladies just ran frites stands, really. But then there are the mythological: Venus, Calypso, Cupido, Paloma. Others utilize the popularity of English in advertising: Candy, Pussycat, Sweety. Or French: Sessibon, Cancan, Glamour, Cafe Diva. Then there is the obvious, but with a smart punctuation twist: Temptation . . .

But these are my three favorites:

3. Just to mess with the tired family on their first European vacation looking for a night’s rest: Hotel Drive-In.

2. Because our girls are as big as . . . Texas?

1. Cactus. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

. . .

On a serious note, although I make fun — because, well, it was kind of funny to read out the names as we passed by these places —  by no means do I intend to take lightly the very serious dark side of the prostitution market. I also happen to think that the puritanical stance in the United States does nothing to address this, and that Europe has so far done a better, if far from perfect, job of at least honestly looking at the issue.

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A Snowy Day in Bruges

We stepped off the train on our latest trip to Bruges into a surprise snow flurry — a great whirling whiteness that made the enchanting city even more magical.

“I know I’m awake but it feels like I’m in a dream . . . It’s a fairytale town,” as two blokes were known to say.

Take a look at the video from our day in Bruges.

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Wandering Views

Our objective led us in one direction, and wandering led us back. We began our road trip to find a famed beer store (of course) but with the promise that we would take the time coming back finding something new.

And so we pulled out the map and selected a dot not too far from the shop and in the general direction of home. (The direction directly home ran only through countryside, farms and the accompanying livestock.) The dot on the map was followed by the name: Lier.

We took a chance on limited information that the town would fit our general qualifications of relatively small (the dot was a mere point) and at least somewhat charming (to which a beer guide alluded). And by the GPS mapping software estimates it was likely reachable before bladder emergencies had to be declared.

The town was indeed charming. Set on an open square (upon which an unfortunate ad hoc parking lot had been created) was a towering 15th century bell tower, a similarly historic town hall and rows of restaurants and shops set on the ground floor of charming buildings. After squeezing into a parking space we took a brisk jaunt around the square in search of, as always, the perfect place.

This marks the problem with wandering when one’s preconceived notions of what a wander should result in make it difficult to be satisfied by anything less, when anything more would require a great deal of strategy, quite the opposite of a wander altogether. (And when I say “one,” I mean “I.”)

This was made worse by the fact that the GPS software was clearly toying with me, and my now red-alert bladder emergency.

We settled, eventually, on a place for its look, knowing not to expect much else. It was a white brick building on the edge of the canal and inside the low ceilings were held up by ancient tree-trunk beams. We ate our mediocre pasta beside a flickering fire, and tried the local “Bier van Lier” (oh so clever, those Lier-ites).  And there was a bathroom, which was most appreciated. The restaurant was called De Fortwin, fortunate indeed to appear just when we needed it most.

Fed, watered and relieved, we were energized to continue our way home in an unexpected way. Using our GPS software once again, we plotted the shortest route back home. This lead us through no fewer than three detour (we’re-working-on-the-street-but-can’t-be-bothered-to-finish-so-you’ll-have-to-drive-elsewhere) signs, before turning onto a particularly wooded section of road. Understand that there are no wooded parts to the land in this region. Everything has long since been farmed out and formed into small towns or big cities. Random groves do not often pop up out of the flat landscape.

“Well at least we get a tour through the woods this way.”

Observing the precisely coiffed, dense and tall hedges that lined the road before the trees, she responded: “Or, I think this is where the rich people live.”

A black Lamborghini turns the corner, revs its engine and speeds way behind them.

“Yes, probably pretty rich.”

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The Bones

The vessel before you contains a relic of utmost historic and religious importance, a vital tie to the past, an object of reverie that has pilgrims buckling. It is . . . the belt of Jesus. Yes, without it, Jesus’ pants would have fallen down, and really who is going to take seriously the word of a profit when his pants are hanging around his ankles? It is also in remarkably good shape for the kind of wear and tear the 1,000-year-old cotton must have gone through, as I suspect Jesus was not a clothes horse with a closet full of color-coordinated belting options.

Just to fill you in on this phenomenon of relics, The Met offers this explanation:

Charlemagne's Arm: With a Picture-Window View

Christian belief in the power of relics, the physical remains of a holy site or holy person, or objects with which they had contact, is as old as the faith itself and developed alongside it. Relics were more than mementos. The New Testament refers to the healing power of objects that were touched by Christ or his apostles. The body of the saint provided a spiritual link between life and death, between man and God . . . the veneration of relics in the Middle Ages came to rival the sacraments in the daily life of the medieval church.

This explanation possesses a small grammatical omission: the present tense. As illustrated in the guide to the Aachen Cathedral Treasury, there are today still pilgrims who travel to view, touch, kiss, be blessed and so forth by the bevy of largely anatomical ornamentation on display at the church of their destination. In Aachen, every seven years there is a big show at which one can steal a glimpse at Mary’s birthing dress, the swaddling clothes and loin cloth of Jesus and St. John the Baptist’s shroud.

Charlemagne's Gold Coffin

But wardrobe relics (secondary in importance) are tame. The treasury tour was not for the weak at heart, as it contained — often in full view — an arm, a skull, a femur, a rib and some hair. Mmmmmmm.

In fact, sitting in their gilded reliquary containers — an arm for the “ulna and radius” and a bust for the cranium, evidently placed just where it should be — I began to wonder how much of Charlemagne was left to lay in his coffin on display within the cathedral.

During the fifteenth century, the cult of Charlemagne enjoyed a revival — perhaps due to the fact that he was the only ruler to inflict any real political, cultural or social improvement for several hundred years before and after his death. This resulted in a popular trade in his personal effects, largely sourced from his coffin, or what remained therein. The man’s remains had been toured around, interned, taken out, refitted for a golden ride, and scattered around once again throughout the 600 years following his demise. Of course, this would explain one point of perplexity that struck me: for a man said to have been well over six feet tall — and thus his other moniker “Carolus Magnus” — there was about a foot or two missing from his fancy gold coffin, perhaps, quite literally.

Charlemagne Bust, Containing His Skull

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