So here I am, back from Belgium and the Netherlands. Phew, what a trip! Fascinating, but exhausting. Four cities in seven days--I don't recommend it for everyone, but it was certainly an experience.
Okay, so the first city was Brussels. It's a lovely city, and it has the funky bonus of having random scenes from random comics painted on random walls. Comics are considered an art form in Belgium, which I give a hearty cheer for. I love me my funnies, and America underappreciates them. However, there wasn't much in Brussels after I exhausted the Gran-Place and the Manneken-Pis. The former is a large square with gorgeous gothic architecture on town halls and musuems. The latter is a fountain featuring a little naked boy. Guess where the water comes out. It's good for one juvenile laugh--what's funnier is the attention lavished upon it by Brussels itself. The stores are full of Manneken-Pis tourist junk, like corkscrews (really. And guess where the corkscrew part is) and statuettes, some of which are bigger than the actual fountain. One museum has an entire room full of outfits that the Manneken-Pis has worn over the years, which include an Elvis outfit and am American Cub Scout uniform, complete with official Wolf and Bear insignia.
Onward to Bruges. Or Brugge. Or Brugges. Or however the heck it's spelled. The part of Belgium that we visited is Flemish, and they speak both Flemish and French, plus English for the tourists, with the result that everything has about three different spellings. Anyway, Bruges is a smaller place than Brussels, and there's a LOT less tourism. It's a gorgeous town--people just don't know about it. On one hand, it's a shame, because it really is nice. On the other hand, it was great not to have to duck all the tourist crap all the time. We stayed at a hostel called Charlie Rocket's, which is worth a look if you're poor and in the neighborhood.
Bruges is a beautiful, comfortable little city. My friend Katie enjoyed it so much that she shelled out the euro for a hotel room and stayed an extra night. In addition to some beautiful art at the Groenling Museum, I saw the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is an itty-bitty lil' church whose claim to fame is that it has a few drops of Christ's blood in a vial. You can't actually see it--the vial lives in an enormous silver . . . thingie off to one side of the altar. However, you can donate money and light candles and pray there. I'm sure the place is rockin' on Easter, and I'm kind of sorry I wasn't there for Palm Sunday, either, but I was in . . . .
Antwerp!!! In Antwerp, we stayed in a B&B called De 2 Kiekens, which means The Two Chickens. It's a little confusing to find (at least it was for me) and it's not the shiniest part of Antwerp, but the place is really comfortable, and the eggs are good. Don't just wander into town and hope it's open, though. There's only one room.
Aside from the B&B, Antwerp itself was surprisingly neat. The plan had been to sleep there and be off the next morning, but my friend Michael discovered that it is a gorgeous city. They had an Ethnographic Museum, which had artifacts from cultures in Africa, Oceania, Australia, Asia, and the Americas. Anthropologists and dorks like me would find it fascinating. The entrance was 2 euro with student discount, and all I had was a 50 euro note! The guy looked at me like I was Kali the bringer of death. I think I totally cleaned him out of change.
Also in Antwerp, I visited the Royal Museum of the Arts, for twenty-five minutes. Not nearly enough, but we got there shortly before closing and we were leaving the next day. Sigh. Half a loaf and all that. I don't know why I suddenly started doing the museum thang on this trip. It used to be that I'd wander through at top speed until I found the classical statuary. Hmm. Anyway, art buffs should definitely visit. Lastly, I saw the Cathedral of Our Lady Whats-Her-Face. Okay, it's not really called that, but it has some really really really long name in Flemish, which I have no hope of either pronouncing or spelling, or for that matter remembering. Even the natives just call it The Cathedral. It had some fantastic art, including a Rubens showing the Ascension of the Cross. I went to Palm Sunday Mass there. I didn't understand a word of the service, but I just sat there and looked at all the art, and that was holy enough for me.
Our last stop was Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. On the train trip there, I sat behind two American girls, and got a quick dose of why I'm sometimes embarassed to have a U.S. passport. This was a full train, okay? Fuuuuuuuuull. And between them, they were taking up four seats, what with their luggage (in spite of the handy-dandy luggage racks) and their assorted junk. When someone finally asked if they could have the seat, one of the girls heaved an oh-my-Gawd sigh, chomped bovinely on her gum, and got up with all the alacrity of a glacier to move her things. Then when the poor man got impatient (because the train was, y'know, moving) and put her fourth bag up on the rack himself, she rolled her eyes so far back she must have been able to see her brain. I made sure not to talk, so nobody would think I was with them. Eurgh.
Once in Amsterdam, we stayed at a place called Camping Zeeburg. Note how I'm not linking. That's because I don't want you blaming me for your stay. Five of us stayed in a cabin the approximate size of an outhouse, (at the low, low price of 70 euro a night), they charged a euro for each shower, and it was the work of at least half an hour to get into Amsterdam. Sheesh.
Amsterdam itself was not what I expected. You hear about the red-light district and the legalized pot all the time. What they fail to mention is the gorgeous canals, which basically run all over the city, the art museums like the Rijks and the Van Gogh, the way that the red-light district is really only about four streets, and fairly safe compared to other cities' red-light districts (for the women and for tourists), and the fact that pot is only decriminalized (splitting hairs, yes, I know) and it's still illegal to go around soliciting, you have to initiate the deal yourself. Amsterdam is not the sinkhole of depravity that a lot of tourists hope for.
Phoo. Okay. You're safe now, the rant's done.
That being said, I did actually visit the red-light district, although not a "coffee shop". It was more depressing and sordid than exciting. Maybe because I'm a female, but the women in the windows just made me sad. I don't know why they got into that life, but I have a hard time understanding why you would choose it.
I also took a ride in a paddleboat around the canals. Both days we were there were bright and sunny and springy, and all along the canals, the trees were in young leaf and people's windows were open. A lot of people live in houseboats along the canal banks, which must be really fun. Some were bright and shiny, and others were . . . individual.
To get my dose of culture, I went to the Van Gogh museum and the next day to the Rijks museum. I don't know much about painting or Van Gogh himself (except for the ear thing, and the suicide thing), and it surprised me to learn that he was passionately fond of literature alongside art, had close friendships with other artists, and was interested in Japanese art, which is definitely something you don't expect. However, once you know it, you can see the influence. The Van Gogh was about mid-size, but the Rijks museum was enormous. I was in there for 2.5 hours, and I know I didn't see all of it. Just all sorts of stuff.
Our last night in Amsterdam was eventful. We saw a comedy/improv show called "Boom Chicago!", which was hysterical but a little raw if you're thinking of taking kidlets. We ended up sleeping at the Amsterdam train station that night, which is something I would not recommend to anyone. We'd left our luggage there, meaning to collect it when our perambulations were done, but the locker area closed at 11:00. Huh?? Explain that to me . . . There weren't too many weirdos there (although some), but it was COLD, and the benches were a frankly sadistic wire design, and there wasn't much to wander around and look at.
However, we made it through, got our luggage at 7 when the locker area opened up, and got to our plane perfectly on time, and got home, very very very tired puppies. I'm still recovering. I've babbled long enough, so I think it's time for bed, and I commend you for having made it all the way through!
Book for today: Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman. This is the first in a fantasy series called "His Dark Materials" about another world, linking universes, and stuff too complex to explain. It's an excellent book, very imaginative, and an interesting main character. There's a lot of things that are puzzling, and it's not as compulsively readable as, say, Harry Potter, but keep at it, because there's good stuff. In the U.S. this first book is called The Golden Compass.