Monday, May 31, 2010

Bruges: More Canals and a Michaelangelo statue.

Bruges (Brugge in Flemish) is called "the Venice of Northern Europe". Wateways cut across the city just  like Venice. The city is as pretty as they come in Europe. Its an hour and half from Brussels. A convenient day trip by bus (picked up from hotel) was tempting. After 2 days of what are called "bus tours" I am a little disenchanted with them. They are the most convenient for a family with a toddler. We get picked up at hotel (especially when you stay at some hotel like Hilton), we are dropped back at our door step. No need to get train tickets, to and fro stations, etc BUT these tour guides will take you to places like unncessary shopping just to line their pockets. In a 5 hour trip we lost precious time because our tour guide took everyone to a chocolate shop, this to people coming from Brussels, total waste. He kept winding through the same monastery garden twice. Charming as it was, it was just an unkempt garden nothing great. During the Amsterdam trip instead of giving us an hour extra to go places the tour guide took us to a humdrum craft store which people used more for the restroom than anything else since the 3 hour return trip was non-stop.

The two chief places in Bruges are "church of our lady" and "Basilica of blood". We managed to visit "church of our lady". This church is known for just one thing, a statue by Michaelangelo. As anything by Michaelangelo the statue of "Madonna and The Child" is exquisite. I am no art critic so I shall stop with that but what kicked up my curiosity was that the statue was made in 1504. Imagine this. An Italian sculptor is known across the continent in 1500's so much that the local aristocrat goes to great lengths (its 1504) to acquire a sculpture by him and bring it to Bruges. In his book "Geography of thought" Nisbet argues that a Greek would love to travel just to see a play or a performance. Nisbet calls that a typical 'western mind'. An oriental mind would not do that and would rather prefer to see "the world in a grain of sand".

During our walk around the city we saw a woman by the door knitting a lace. She was using 100+ spindles. We snapped away but she did not lift her head once. Apparently they are arranged to showcase the talent and merchandise of Bruges.

Rowena then wanted to go on a boat ride. Given the time crunch I had to sacrifice "Basilica of blood". Flowers, flowers, flowers everywhere for the europeans. Everywhere you turn its made for picture post cards. These places are a photographer's delight. Cruising the waterways behind the houses we saw snippets of Bruges household life. Most curtains were of the 'lace' kind. People enjoy having lunch/dinner out on the backyard overlooking waterways. Everybody looked like they are in no rush. THe laid out table was always perfect with flatware and wine goblets.Bruges is to Belgium what Lucerne is to Switzerland. Better to stay in Bruges than in Brussels, the hotels are swanky.Yet again the food at a local "Brasserie Vivaldi" was just too good.

The highlight of the boat trip was retrieving a hat. A tourist on the street lost his hat to the wind. Our good boatman decided that it was his duty to retrieve the soggy hat. He manouvered the boat, used his ubmrella as stick etc and did finally toss the hat back to the amused tourist on the ground above us. I was perplexed because my bus was waiting also the back and forth in a tiny canoe filled with people was not a great idea. Apparently there are no tort lawyers in Europe (or Bruges at least). The boat would not be allowed license in USA. No life jackets, we do not sign any waivers, the canals with low clearances had no warning notices. The whole scenery was simply unaffected by litigation concerns.

Our next trips around Brussels and Cologne we decided to do it ourselves. Lets see how that turns out.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Amsterdam: Land of Canals, cycles, philosophy and carnality

Yesterday we took a day trip to Amsterdam. After a sumptuous breakfast at the hotel (wonderful filling spread) a bus picked us up. I was prepared that this trip would be an insult to Amsterdam, it would give us just a glimpse, actually only a peek. The commute was 6 hours to and fro Brussels. As soon as we entered Amsterdam we passed by "President Kennedy's Lane" to a boat trip. Most boats are covered with a glass canopy the reason being that the canals have very low clearance so to prevent accident they have canopies. A bus load of mostly old chinese joined us on the boat. What a ruckus they kicked up, safety advisories were brushed off, never kept the line, whipping out cell phone camera they ensured nobody else could have a decent shot.

The boat took us around Amsterdam's hundreds of canals. Amsterdam, like New Orleans, is under the sea level. Most construction is on foundation unique to the water level. Narrow streets, old houses, older cars, wide windows (used for many purposes like hanging your feet and having a drink). We cruised by the home where Anne Frank had lived in hiding prior to her capture. Anne Frank talks about Gandhi in her diary. What a life, what a diary!!! Rembrandt and Spinoza were other very famous residents. Rembrandt has a statue. No mention of Spinoza.

As we wove through the canals and I watched the steets I noted that there was ZERO posters or invitations to Amsterdam's most notorious area, "red light area". Prositution and drugs are legal. Drugs are sold in tea shops we were told. Yet the streets were clean. In NYC one could see taxis with advertisements for strip clubs and cards would be handed out brazenly at Times Square. I guess legalizing vice (adult pleasures) and cordoning it off keeps the rest of the city clean. No need of a Supreme Court to decide if an exotic dancer removing her G-string is protected by First Amendment right (expressing creativity).

Amsterdam moves on cycles. Cycles, cycles everywhere and they do not stop for anyone. Whether its Paris or Zurich or Amsterdam or Belgium one can safely assume a Pizzeria or some Italian variation will be within sight. Europe knows good food and good clothing. We have never been disappointed with food. Its extremely difficult for vegetarians though. Europeans love meat and sea food, chicken options are not much.

What impressed me most is Europeans are very stress free (excluding Greece for now). People take their own sweet time doing things, mostly smiling, enjoy food, enjoy leisure, put simply 'enjoy life'. On the other hand the dynamism of NYC, especially Times Square, is unmatched. Also the rich diversity of people is rarely seen in Europe.

A very curious incident happened in the courtyard before the palace. Suddenly some 'model' like girls showed up, they stripped down to their bikini's, started playing beach volleyball. Apparently they had a photo-shoot. No wonder the place got crowded in minutes.

On our way out we stopped by the only windmill within Amsterdam. Very picturesque. A Rembrandt statue was nearby. I really wished to see Anne Frank's home and some thing connected to Baruch Spinoza, well some other time.

The houses were all picture post card perfect. Most window sills were decorated with flowers. Homes in Switzerland were similar. I guess Europeans love neatly decorated homes.

This trip was only to give a tasting of Netherlands. Gotta go back some other time. Next day was a planned trip to Bruges.

Friday, May 28, 2010

In the land of Waffles

I left for India on May 27th. Its a 7 year hiatus. The last 3 visits were tied to marriages including my own. I left India in 1998 and I go to a vastly changed country today. I am very eager to see the changes that everybody keeps talking about. I decided to take a short break in Europe enroute. Having chosen Jet Airways (pretty good one) I took a break at Brussels for a week. We landed in Brussels on May 28th and were greeted by an ad for Starbucks next to a coke vending machine. Long live America. The customs check was a breeze due to our American passport.

Belgium sits nestled between France and Germany hence French and German are used in most places. English is used too. This is where Napoleon was humbled and his dreams of a french empire came crashing in Waterloo (close to Brussels). Flanders has thousands of war dead buried during World War 1. I remember a poem Nehru quoted in his 'Glimpses of world history', 'In flanders field....". Bharathi wrote a poem lamenting how Belgium was mauled by Germany during World War 1 despite its declared neutrality.

Waiting for a cab I was surprised to note that all cabs were Mercedes, 100%. I know that in Germany BMW's run as taxis did not expect it in Brussels. This is our second Europe trip so the generic small European cars were expected. Most cars were German made, some Italian. I saw just one Toyota and one Ford. All along the way to Hilton in downtown the buildings were unremarkable. Mostly flat topped, mostly old, pretty ordinary buildings. Just like Madras of 80's. The cab ride was interesting, the cabbie played Western Classical music (Chopin's nocturnes, Mozart sonatas --- I peered at the play list :-) ). I asked him if all cabs do that. He proudly said only he does that, that earned him a generous tip.

Our hotel, Hilton Brussels, is close to downtown situated in a street lined with designer shops. Armani, Faconnable, Tiffany, Ralph Lauren, Hermes etc. I visted the shops while Rowena and Preeth slept. Its the first time I saw Ralph Lauren merchandise priced way above Faconnable. Also the dresses sold by RL were very unlike anything I've seen at their boutique shops in US (not the facory outlets). America is good to shop economically but Europe is where quality is. I've felt that way during my visit to Zurich, Paris last year.

In the evening we took a road map and walked towards the most famous landmark in Belgium, 'Mannekin Pis' (Dutch for 'little man pissing). Its a non-descript cheeky statue of a small boy pissing, its located in a hum-drum location on street by the side, yet its the most famous sight. Then we proceeded to Grand Palace Cote. A Jazz festival is on for 3 days. There are Jazz performances in several parts of the city. The streets are mostly cobbled stone roadways. The trams are old and creaky unlike the swanky ones in Zurich. The road side bistros are typically European, we have a poor imitation of those in parts of NYC. I did not see a single 'chain' restaurant. The plebian American in me. We had lunch and dinner in different places. A waffle is not a waffle if you have not eaten it in Belgium. A crispy waffle topped with nice vanilla ice cream studded with some really luscious straw berries. The chicken pot pie we had for dinner was simply out of the world. Of course the usual irritants of having to pay for water (its costlier than soda) was there and no doggie bags (yet again the American)

Hollywood really rules here too. Whether its Paris (and the snobbish French) or Belgium its Hollywood all the way. The theater near our hotel features "Sex and the city part 2" complete with a tall poster of Sarah Jessica Parker sashaying in a gown slit all the way upto the hip. There was Russel Crowe staring menacingly in a poster for 'Robin Hood'.

I stepped into a Faconnable store (there is one at NYC opposite Saks). The store assistants really would prefer to help you try out clothes rather than you helping yourself. Not sure if it was because the store was an upscale one. The home stuff in RL store was breathtaking. Talking of shops, next to waffles Belgium is known for hand sewn intricate lace work clothing and lace work material. We bought a small souvenir and marked out some table cloths for purchase on our last day. To say that they were 'intricate' is an understatement.

The Louis Vuitton store was interesting. Their hand stitched leather goods are considered the best and of course priciest too. It was cute to see store assistants handle the boxes and bags like they were jewellery. They placed the bags on the table on a nice soft cloth like a jeweller showing of a diamond.  The boxes and bags are stored in cloth covers.I guess any LV store across the globe would do that.

Before I part for today a really curious thing. I've heard from my cousin who visited Germany about their curiously designed toilet bowls. When I stepped into the bathroom in my hotel room I was taken aback to see 2 commodes. One was our usual one. Another one next to it had no lid and interesting had two taps, cold + hot just to wash away the urine. Yes its only a urinal. One wonders at the need for hot+cold water for THAT.