A Belgium Travelog
Board: Macro Economics
More on Luxemburg:
A tour of the “Casements” is worthwhile as the former fortresses and battlements are very impressive. There is a narrow set first built by the Spanish in 1644 (and further embellished by the Austrians in the 18th century) where you can (for 5 Euros) get a guided tour. There is a much larger set of similar fortifications across the old city where you can wander for free.
Last night I sat next to a young lady who works as an economist at the European Commission. Nothing she said has changed any of my perceptions of the futility of assuming that Greece has any chance of independently meeting its obligations in the long term.
Today the day started with coffee and pastry at Paul’s (a chain of rustic and fantasy breads and pastries) and then the one hour train ride to Ghent. While NYC has been fighting subway graffiti successfully, all the really good artists seem to have migrated to Belgium and there is some real artwork on the sidings and some of the cars.
The Korenmarkt lies at the center (Centrum) of the city. Most of the city's important sights -- including the Town Hall, Saint Bavo's Cathedral, and the Belfry -- lie within a half mile of this central square. The Leie River winds through the center to connect with the Scheldt River and a network of canals that lead to the busy port area. Citadel Park, location of the Fine Arts Museum, is near Sint-Pieters Station. Patershol (which means the cave -- or hole -- in which monks lived a hermit's existence) is an ancient enclave not far from the Castle of the Counts. The place is fast becoming a gastronomic center, as more and more small restaurants move into renovated old buildings in the area.
We take a quick tour of the medieval city of Gent as well and then walk through the Grand Place, one of Europe's most beautiful squares. The extraordinary ensemble of Baroque façades was built where Brussels' first inhabitants held their market in the 12th century, but now many house fast food restaurants.
It does have Gravensteen, the Duke of Flanders’s ancestral castle built in the 1100’s. This is the very coolest place (dungeons, crenulated towers, torture stuff – everything a kid would want in a castle°, but I can’t imagine living in a pile of rocks like that.
It is a lovely Flemish university town, but frankly we are so full of Flem by now that we took a few photos of scenic views and the ornate town square and headed back to Brussels.
Once back in Brussels, we walked to the European Parliament only to find it shut for the weekend and then wandered to the King’s Palace which was unexpectedly open (they only open this to tourists for a couple of weeks a year) and had the chance to explore an actual “working” palace. While we have been exposed on this trip to some pretty upscale palaces (the Hermitage and Peterhof, as examples), this ranks way up with the fanciest (I guess all that Belgian Congo money was put to good use). Afterwards, we went through the “King’s Passage” (a long, covered 19th century shopping arcade) which sports a number of chocolate shops whose prices and variety eclipse such commonplace names as Godiva. Lunch was a sandwich and salad of inhuman size at the Pistoil sandwich shop. After that, it was back to the hotel for the Boss to put ice packs on her bruises of the day before.
We decided to get some pomes frit (“French” fries”) from Maison Antoine’s on Place Jordan-plein, near the hotel. This place has been around for more than 60 years and is supposed to have the best fries in the city (sure tasted that way). They start with a cone of wrapped paper, continually wrapping more paper and filling the expanding cone with more fries. Sauces are extra and are generally mayonnaise based (though ketchup is available for those gastronomic barbarians who demand it). While we were early and served nearly immediately, the lines can get to nearly an hour long. The place is such a Mecca that the local bars and restaurants have signs welcoming those with fries to sit down and augment their feast.
In talking to people (some Romanians and some Portuguese) around the foosball table, it seems that much of Europe suffers from the same “disease” as North Africa. Youth are told that if they pay for and receive a good education in a profession (say engineering), that there will be appropriate jobs available for them. Unfortunately, this is not the case and many are forced to take jobs well below their training level (and at far lower pay). Given another few years to fester, this could be the world’s next crisis.
On Sunday it was raining a bit so our plans to head by train to the beach went out the window. Instead, we took the number 27 bus from in front of the hotel to the Brussel-Zuid (Bruxelles-Midi) train station for the Sunday market. The same fare card as works for the metro is used on the bus. While we were not aware of its route, the bus winds its way through all of Brussels, past most of the major train stations (Shuman, Luxemburg, Central and Midi) as well as the King’s palace and the city center, so it made a nice overview of the city. The Sunday market at the train station turned out to be huge, but not too interesting for a tourist who had seen numerous similar ones (clothes, food, etc.). But we had passed a flea market close by on our way. The bus ticket was still valid (I guess they last for some period of time) so getting back on to avoid the drizzle was free) and got off at Vossenplein (Place du Jeu de Balle) for the flea market. This was actually pretty cool with lots of African masks, brass, crystal and assorted bric-a-brac. The boss wouldn’t let me buy a priceless Japanese vase from an enterprising Arab for 25-30 Euros with the excuse that we didn’t need it. (Another life-long regret : -). (I understand that there is another fantastic market on weekends along the Place du Sablon, the antiques district, alongside the spectacularly decadent stores of chocolate makers Pierre Marcolini, Wittamer and Neuhaus, but one cannot be everywhere at once).
We then took the Metro to the far side of the Parc du Cinquantenaire where there is an Arc de Triumph on steroids type of affair with attached museum complexes. This park was built on the former military parade grounds to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Belgium for an international exposition and completed in 1905. After spending a couple of hours of fascinating time (for me, at least – for the wife, not so much : -) in the vast military museum which includes arrays of everything from Napoleonic, WWI and WWII arms, arms history/manufacturing, armored vehicles, navel vessels, airplanes, etc., we bypassed the automobile exhibit (life is too short to go to two guy places in a row) and went to the Museum of Art History & Design instead. From there, we walked down the shallow slope of the large park back to our hotel.
We’ve decided to take the 45 minute train ride to Antwerp. The first thing you see when you arrive is the fabulously ornate central train station built by King Leopold in 1905. It’s, in my opinion, one of the major sights of Antwerp. The city zoo is located right next door. Antwerp, Belgium's second largest city and Europe's largest harbor, is the home to the sparkling stones of one of the world's diamond centers (Interesting that on this trip we will have visited Ramat Gan, Israel, Antwerp, Amsterdam and then back to NYC – effectively hitting all of the world’s traditional wholesale diamond centers).
Antwerp has the usual array of churches, museums, even a red light district, but its call is its diamond business. This is the district south and southwest of the central station. As the name already indicates, you will find countless jewelry shops here, as well as the Antwerp Diamond Exchange, arguably the most important financial center of the world's diamond industry. As is the case with this type of wholesale district, while the street is filled with retail establishments, most of the wholesale activity takes place behind closed doors requiring an invitation to participate.
That said, similar to other diamond centers, the stores that a tourist would see at street level are probably the worst places to buy and unless you have an introduction from someone in the trade, shopping for stones here is going to be a waste of time (or worse, very expensive).
The district is also interesting from an ethnic and cultural perspective, since the majority of diamond merchants are Jewish (most of them orthodox). Antwerp has a rather large population of Jews (about 50,000 people) and the Jewish Quarter is home of two of the world’s most beautiful synagogues, the 'Van Den Nest' and 'Bouwmeester' synagogues.
While the museums are closed because it’s Monday, the cathedral is open and (for 5 Euros) has its Rubens on display. It is a very large church filled with (what else?) Flemish art. To get here, we walled over a mile down a very crowded shopping street, but took the coward’s way out by taking the nymber 11 tram back to the central station.
Some things we missed while in Brussels were Dansaert, which is the design center of downtown Brussels and Boulevard de Waterloo & Louise which is the high-end area for serious luxury shopping. The coolest Belgian and international designers are represented along Rue Antoine Dansaert, along with great vintage finds. We also missed seeing the Botanical Gardens with magnificent greenhouses and a fabulous terrace cafe, and we didn’t take a stroll through the Parc de Bruxelles, the green lung in the heart of the city. We also didn’t have time to take a day trip to the Atomium, a cult monument, built for the 1958 International Exhibition – a place to go inside the atom. Nearby is the Planetarium, and the kitsch of the Mini-Europe theme park, the Chinese Pavilion, and the Japanese Tower built in 1905 and featuring marvelous porcelain collections. I guess we’ll have to return sometime in the future (it took us about 18 years to return this time).
Amsterdam, The Netherlands – August 28, 2012
Well, it’s time to head by train (normally about a three hour ride, but we’ve paid a premium to take the high speed train, so the trip should take about an hour and a half) back to our starting point for the “land” portion of our trip. The train didn’t travel particularly fast over much of the route Apparently the construction of the high speed tracks were delayed by KLM, but now that Air France owns them, the tracks are being built), but skipped stations to make up the difference in time. We’re staying at the Hotel Pulitzer again (where our heavy “cruise luggage” has been in storage for a couple of months). I can’t believe how much luggage I now have. They busted the handle on one piece, so that (and picking up a bit of wine) will be morning projects. We’ve contacted (through a site called cruisecritics.com) a fellow traveler on the next cruise who lives in the city and is running a guided tour all day and all night.
We meet Richard and his cohort for a snack at the 16th century “Weighing” House (originally a fortified tower at the end of a jetty in the harbor, then a customs house inland, after the harbor had been filled), then rijsttafel Indonesian buffet lunch, some walking tour sightseeing and then a candlelight boat trip on an “La Belle Epoch”, an antique canal boat from 1910 with drinks and desserts. We sailed on the salon boat a 3 hour evening cruise through the canals when the city becomes magical. Roles were be reversed with the local tourists snapping pictures of us.
Amsterdam has an interesting history when it comes to religion (as well as how that relates to commerce and capitalism). The main church is adjacent to the “red light district” and centuries ago came up with an interesting program for sailors. When they found that sailors could no longer afford charity for penance after visiting the other attractions the city had to offer, they started selling penitence’s in advance”(apparently on a quantity discount basis) so you could accumulate a quantity of “good karma” to be worked off with the money you had left after paying for divine forgiveness in advance. A couple of interesting walking tour stops: The Begijnhof, one of the dozens of almshouses hidden in the city (this one is an enclosed compound of about fifty nice homes surrounding a park which are rented out to single women or widows who have an attachment to faith and where the rent is about 100 Euros per month, rather than the 3,000 it would normally cost) and the old Dutch East India company headquarters – now a business school – where the idea of selling shares in an enterprise was first cooked up.
A note on Amsterdam cabs: Different companies apparently charge different prices and while the trip from the Central Station to the hotel cost 10 Euros, later in the day, the same trip cost 15 Euros – live and learn.
Today, August 29th we are boarding Holland America’s Eurodam (their largest ship) for the beginning of our trip home. It seems bizarre to be talking about a trip being nearly over with more than two weeks left, but this cruise will be our final link which takes us back home to New York City.
Because I am unsure whether I will be able to continue to post from the ship (my “PC” is now a single memory stick), I am breaking from my usual tradition of posting this on Saturday. I’ll try to continue the postings, but no guaranty and this is a natural transition point in the saga. Next stop will be Norway.