Epic Belgian Email #26

Groetjes! Ciao! Salut! Hello!

I’m cycling backward through all the languages worth of greetings I’ve gone through over the last week. It’s been a very busy week, which means this will be a very busy email. After last week’s un-Epic, I feel justified. Are you ready? 🙂

Last Wednesday I overslept. Of course I did. But apparently I wanted to be awake badly enough that my brain turned on backup. I did some serious scrambling and still managed to catch the 8:30 train to Paris.

We meant to drop off our luggage at our hotel then go find something interesting to do (not difficult in Paris,) but when we arrived at the hotel, we discovered our internet reservation had gotten jumbled. They had filled all the rooms in our hotel, so we had been moved to a different hotel – a better hotel – for the same price. (Woo!) It was at the base of Montparnasse, which is the solitary skyscraper on the Paris skyline. Very handy for finding your way home.

By the time we got settled and scoped out the area (primarily a shopping and restaurant district), it was late enough to consider grub. We were going to sit out in a nice little garden on top of the local Galleries Lafayettes, but wouldn’t you know that’s when the rain started. So we went back to the hotel and chilled out there for awhile. We took another walk after dinner and called it an early night.

The next morning began the Garden Tour that would become the theme for much of the vacation. It was overcast and a bit cool, but the rain had stopped. Because both of us have been lucky enough to see most of the main tourist spots in Paris already, we decided to check out some of the gardens. We started in the Luxembourg Gardens, where we hung out around the pond and watched gulls take showers in the fountain. Next, we had lunch in a little (nameless) garden outside the Cluny Museum, where we (okay, I) “accidentally” fed the pigeons.

Pigeons were also a bit of a theme for the vacation, but I guess that’s a little bit normal anywhere there are cities and tourists. “Pigeons dans les fleurs,” (sung to the tune of “Strangers in the Night”) was the theme song. Not sure what’s so funny about pigeons in the flowers, but it made me giggle every time I saw them.

Our final garden stop of the day was the Tuilleries, outside the Louvre. The flowers had been freshly planted, and the crowds were minimal, but it was getting a bit chilly, so we didn’t stay too long.

We had Asian food for dinner. I can’t be any more specific than “Asian,” I think. I had curry chicken with cantonese rice and jasmine tea, so it was really a bit of everything. Very nice.

The next day, the sun came out. It was too nice to pass up revisiting a few gardens, but then we decided to hit the Biggest Best French Garden, so we headed out to Versailles.

Versailles is the palace of Louix XIV, the Sun King of France. It is located about half an hour outside of Paris. He lived there from the mid 16- to early 1700s. The palace itself is incredible, but the gardens are absolutely breathtaking. They’re done in the formal French style (symmetrical, straight lines, geometric patterns), with a park that extends as far as the eye can see. Sadly, the flowers had not yet been planted and the fountains were not running, but it was still wonderful.

We rented bikes and went hunting for Marie Antoinette’s farm – a place where she used to go to escape from the frantic palace life and pretend to be a shepherdess while sipping wine and munching grapes. We looked for an hour and couldn’t find it (the place is *big!*), but eventually (with a bit of help from a map we missed the first time around) we got it figured out. The farm is very cute. Made me think of Storeybook Island, actually. So picturesque, you can hardly believe anyone actually lived there. (A few peasants did – someone had to keep it running while the queen and her groupies were away.)

Then back to Paris for dinner. This time it was Moraccain. It was WAY yummy, and WAY to much food. We kind of had to roll home.

After digesting a bit, we went for a walk and ended up in the garden (pigeons dans les fleurs!) at the base of the Eiffel Tower. The lights were on, and when the hour struck, the whole thing lit up, sparkling like a firecracker. I took some excellent pictures.

Taking pity on our feet, we took the metro back.

Our plane left for Italy at 7:30 the next morning. The problem with that is you have to be there a bit early, and you have to be awake in time to get there, and the metros don’t run at that hour… (5:00 am is REALLY too early to be leaving to catch a plane. Eeeeyuck. But I guess I’m the only one to blame.)

The flight was short and uneventful, and the view out the windows beyond compare. We flew over the Alps, which were mostly submerged in clouds. At points, however, peaks stuck right up through the clouds, looking a lot like white islands in a white sea. I get dizzy just imagining what it must be like to stand on a peak like that and look out above the clouds…

We arrived in Turin, found our hotel, and promptly took a nap. That’s all you can do when you had to wake up at 4:30. After prying ourselves up again, we headed out to investigate.

Turin will be hosting the 2006 Olympics, and sadly, that means the city is currently a mess. Not just a few of the main piazzas (that’s a public square, not a tasty dinner item) were torn up and blocked off and under construction. Peeking through the scaffolding, I decided that they were getting delayed in the work by the unfortunate (:p) discovery of Roman-flavored ruins located beneath the piazzas.

Turin is a neat city, in any case. They have a healthy share of Roman ruins, a few of which are easier to view than the stuff just being dug up. Parts of the old wall and several towers remain. The wall, in fact, has been built right into the sides of many modern buildings. They like to recycle architecture. Many new buildings also have old windows or doors or just *pieces* stuck into them at random – a nice Renaissance window here, Gothic door arch there…

Turin is also the home of the famous Shroud, which is said to have been the burial cloth of Jesus. The basilica in which it is located is built right onto the side of (one of the) palaces, and is rather unassuming on the outside. Inside, however, it’s a rather intimidating church – the inside is done primarily in black stone (to inspire proper reverence, according to the tourist information we had). Mostly, I just found it a bit overwhelming. As it turns out, the chapel of the shroud is being redone, so we couldn’t go in, but they don’t display the shroud itself anyway, so looking at the life-size copy was just as good.

Part of the second day was spent down by the River Po, admiring the architecture and watching people and traffic. We took a ride up the elevator in the… uh… really tall building whose name I’ve forgotten. It was built as a temple (Jewish, I suppose?) but has since been converted into a Cinema Museum. The very top part, where you can go and look at the view, is built in the shape of a classical Roman temple. It’s a very odd site, to see this funny temple sitting on top of a giant square dome. (Yes, square dome. Look at the picture, I’m not making this up…) The view was excellent, but sadly too hazy to get a glimpse of the alps, which should have been back there somewhere.

Next stop was the required Garden Tour visit. The park in question was incredibly crowded, as local Turinites flocked out into the sun. If there were other tourists there, it was hard to tell. Unlike everywhere else we visited, we heard almost nothing but Italian from all the people around us. No flocks of camera-wielding site-seers to fight with in Turin.

In the south of the park was a little Medieval village, built in the 1800s. If you check your history books, you’ll discover that the middle ages were over by no later than 1500 in Italy, so this is a bit odd. But apparently someone (presumably the city) had the village built as a tourist attraction. It’s very well done. Looks properly medieval to me. My favorite part, however, might have been the guy making baloon animals just outside. He was really talented. Y’ain’t never seen a road runner that convincing! 😉

We had pizza for lunch (of course!) and pasta for dinner. It was delicious, and it must be time for lunch as I write this, because my mouth is watering just thinking about it. There was also a helping or two (or three or four…) of gelato in there to round things out. The second night we took a recommendation from our hotel guy and ended up in a little mom’n’pop type restaurant where NO one spoke english (and I wasn’t smart enough at the time to see if they spoke French). With lots of pointing, mumbling, and flapping about of hands, we managed to get dinner ordered (without having ANY idea what exactly we were getting). And of course, it was wonderful. Another evening concluded by rolling home.

That was the evening the Pope died. We had gone to bed early, so missed the actual announcement, but news coverage had been intense throughout the whole vacation. In our original plans, we had discussed going to Rome, but opted for Turin and Venice because the plane tickets were much more reasonable. In retrospect, it’s just as well – our vacation proceeded without interruption – but it really would have been incredible to be in Rome and see the crowds. We may never have gotten out, but it would have been neat. In any case, aside from flags at half-mast, there were no real complications outside of Rome as a result.

The next morning, we hopped a train for Venice. It was a rather long ride, in a car full of people who spoke Italian over our heads, but arriving in Venice was worth it.

Venice is an incredible city. Sadly, I waited to do my research on it until after I came home, but you don’t have to know exactly what you’re seeing to appreciate how fantastic it is. There are no cars permitted on the islands, so if you want to get somewhere you walk or take a boat. The streets for pedestrians vary from broad avenues to literally one-way alleys, where if you want to pass someone going the other direction, you have to squish up against the wall. Our hotel was located on such a street. I hear it used to be an old monastery or maybe a convent.

We spent the first afternoon just wandering around, peering in shop windows, and hanging over the edge of bridges. We didn’t see any gardens in Venice, so our theme was interrupted, but there were more than enough pigeons to make up for it. In fact, walking into Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), you have to wonder if there are more pigeons or or people.

San Marco is also the location of the basilica, a building of astonishing beauty. I tried to count the number of different marbles used in its construction, but I got confused and had to give up in the low twenties. The Byzantine influence is very apparent in the architecture (I say, knowing nothing more about Byzantine architecture than that they had pointy windows). The streets are lined with portable walkways that can be laid out in case the streets or piazzas flood, which happens more than half the days of the year.

A lot of our time there was spent lost. It is remarkably easy to get lost in Venice. The city was, I believe, built before they discovered straight lines. You’ll never find a labyrinth more devious than the twisting narrow streets that suddenly dead-end in a canal, split to go 16 different directions, or land you right back where you started despite the fact that you don’t remember ever turning. It was wonderful.

I did a bit of shopping and plenty of picture taking. We opted out of ye olde gondola ride – six beellion euros is more than I’d care to spend. Besides, hanging over the edge of the bridges and watching the gondola traffic jams, I thought we might be safer on solid ground. (The water busses have instructions on them in case someone falls overboard. I am a little suspicious that falling into a venetian canal might just be worse than, say, getting HIT by a waterbus…)

The last night we were there we watched the sun set. It was spectacular. We took another hotel recommendation for dinner and ended up in a little local pub. Amidst the general flapping about that accompanied an attempt to communicate how much wine we wanted, I accidentally discovered that the waiter spoke french, after which things became decidedly easier. Dinner, once again, was superb.

And once again, only I can be blamed for the ridiculously early departure time of our airplane. (I will never again be allowed to book tickets.) We had to leave the hotel at 5:00 to catch our waterbus to get back to the mainland to catch a regular bus to get to the airport by 7:30. Whew. There was more napping immediately after returning to Leuven.

The past week has been more relaxing. Vacations are always a bit exhausting. I extended the Garden Tour theme and went to check out the Kruidtuin gardens here in Leuven. It’s a botanical garden now owned by the university. It was really lovely, but I got kicked out for closing time not long after I got there.

I also took a spin on the giant ferris wheel they set up in the library square. They (being the city) built a whole garden at the base of the wheel, as well, right in the middle of the square. It’s so strange to see it there – grass, trees, flowers, (giant eggs and topiary chickens), the whole bit. At night (when I rode the wheel), they light it with blue lights, which is a rather eerie effect. Riding the wheel also gives you an excellent view of the bug-on-a-stick, although I was unable to get a decent picture.

Saturday a few of us took a trip up to Brugge. I went once before, but I might as well not have, since I was just as lost and confused this time around. Brugge is a picturesque, medieval city in the north of Belgium. It is also riddled with canals, making one feel right at home after returning from Venice. We toodled around in the city center, pressing our noses up against all the chocolate store windows and admiring buildings we didn’t know much about. We then wandered over to the Beguinage – now the home of Benedictine Nuns, I understand – and admired the medieval architecture and tulips. Most parks have grass, but instead, the Beguinage had a field of tullips. Really beautiful.

In the evening, we had an invitation from Piraye to come out for drinks with her and her boyfriend’s football (soccer) team. One should know, in accepting an invitation like that, that one is in for an adventure. Well, why not?

The pub we went to is (apparently) normally a quiet place. On this occasion, however, the bar’s owner had a birthday and alllll his friends were there. Other than exceptionally loud music and a free drink at midnight, that didn’t seem to affect us much until a couple people, having had a few more drinks than strictly necessary, decided to get up and dance on the bar. In the process, he knocked down and broke five or six rather expensive glasses (quack glasses, for anyone who knows about such things), and the dancing was no longer so amusing. We rounded the evening off with “one last drink” (a Belgian catch-phrase) at a supposedly quieter bar which was not really quieter at all, but at least had neat lights. Falling asleep is not hard after an evening like that.

Sunday was a bit of a lazy day. Sunday was also a food day. Yum. The chickens have been abundant in their egg production since the weather has been nice, and I just can’t keep up with them on my own. So brunch was eggs, bacon, and fried potatoes. Mmmm. Nine eggs down (between more meals than just this one), 16 eggs to go!

In the evening, I invited my roommate and Jeroen over for mexican. My roommates didn’t actually show up, but it turns out that’s just as well, since I managed to dump almost all of the first course behind the oven. 😦 I have a hunch that Entertaining might not be my forte. Not only did I magically make the first course disappear, but I managed to LOSE the second course. It isn’t possible, it really isn’t, but I managed it never the less. After frantic searching, we finally managed to locate it (it being ground beef, tightly sealed in plastic, thank goodness) in the garbage can. Don’t ask, I just don’t know.

So dinner was less than a stellar success, but the company was good and conversation nice. Marianne showed up toward then end and ate abrikoostaart for dessert with us.

And today, vacation is officially over, which means I need to get back at my thesis. I have a colloquium on the 22nd – kind of a workshop to discuss progress so far with professors and other students. Yikes. I have some work to do. So wish me well on that, go take a bathroom break now that you’ve finished reading my truly epic epic, and I’ll send more news later.

Love and hugs from this side of the globe!


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