Sunday, October 26, 2008

Netherlands Day 4, Antwerp, Belgium

(To everyone slogging through these travelogues, please know these are mainly for my mother--partly because she says she's terribly interested in every detail, and because David and Julia don't post anything about what they're doing! I have no delusion that anyone else really cares to know exactly what we did, ate, and saw in such mind-numbing detail.)

Tyler really wanted to see another country on our trip, in spite of the fact that those European Union countries don't stamp passports anymore. So Belgium it was, specifically Antwerp. Sadly, our trip to Antwert was punctuated by things that didn't go right, but we still had a pretty good day. To start, I had miscalculated the time difference and set my cell phone alarm wrong (it was still on Utah time). It went off at 3am and I didn't reset it so we overslept and got started late. Then we got to the train station and poor David couldn't get our tickets because the system kept crashing, so we missed the train and had to wait an hour. Then they announced that the ticket system had crashed nationwide, so we were lucky to have gotten our tickets at all!

The train ride to Antwerp took about 2 hours, and was pleasant, passing through countryside: fields of onions and broccoli, lots of cows. The central Antwerp station was the biggest we'd been in. Three stories underground, but the entrance was a stunning collection of towers, marble, glass, and gold. In our daze at the building's construction we exited out the wrong side of the building and walked around Chinatown for 20 minutes before we discovered the right direction to get to the historic district.

First we saw the Cathedral, built between the 1200s and 1600s. It was the biggest one we'd seen yet, with an enormous tower, flying buttresses, and four paintings by Reubens. It always strikes me as odd to see these amazing masterworks just sitting on the wall of a church, not protected by bullet-proof Plexiglas, not monitored by cameras. It was the first cathedral I'd seen with painted columns, moldings, and walls, although most of the paint had been worn away or covered with whitewash. The carved screens were so elaborate, and it had beautiful stained glass. They're big on statues commemorating old legends--usually involving giants and someone a little bit drunk.

After the church we saw the stadhuis (statehouse) flying modern flags of various countries, although we did not see the U.S. one--guess we're not all that popular these days, anyway. In the courtyard sits a large fountain depicting the legend of how the city was founded. Apparently linguistically, Antwerp could mean "Hand werpen" (throwing the hand). So there's this giant, and someone (likely a teensy bit drunk) kills him and cuts off his hand. The giant-slayer then tosses the hand and its landing spot is the place the city began. There are various hand statues around town, but this one showed the giant killer tossing the severed hand, while the stump of the arm spouts water. Charming.

We also saw a castle with its military fortifications, the meat hall, built of red and white bricks, designed to look like a slab of bacon, and an alley from medieval times. Today is just a cute little alley weaving among shops and restaurants, but we overheard a guide explaining that on those original paving stones would be crowds of unwashed inhabitants and their animals, all wallowing together in whatever murky liquids ran through those lovely cobblestones.

Despite the enjoyable meanderings through random streets (note to self: next time, get a map!) we tried heading back to the station to find Reuben's home, but arrived right after closing. Next we tried returning to the medieval part of town to see a printing museum, but got there as it was closing its doors. So back to the station again, consoling ourselves with Belgian chocolates, and Belgian waffles dripping with carmelized sugar. Why don't we have tasty street food in the U.S.?

We laughed at a couple of street performers--the ones who look like a statue but then move. One was pouring a jar of water into a pool, and I was convinced it was a fountain. When she moved, it scared me to death. Once we arrived back in Leiden we got our daily dose of frites and a falafel and rushed home to get warm. It was the first dry day but the wind at night was icy!

Netherlands Day 3 - Den Haag

Tyler and I walked to the corner bakery for our daily bread, but it was closed for the festival. We took the long way back to the apartment, passing two canal streets and seeing lots of families with strollers heading for the "Relief of Leiden" festival (quick summary: The Spanish control the city as part of the 80 Years War. Dutch resist. Spanish beseige the city. Half the population of 70,000 starve. Dutch break through and free the city, bringing herring and white bread. In gratitude, the citizens are offered permanent freedom from taxation or a university. They opt for the university--Leiden University, where David is studying.)

The streets were getting crowded with stalls full of fish, snacks, and various wares--clothes, scarves, jewelry, leather goods. One smaller stand had two old men smoking herring in big oil drums and string the fish out on racks. The traditional food for the day is herring (typically raw with onion, but also smoked I guess) and white bread. Also the Hutspot or "Spanish stew" found in the still-hot pot when the Spanish fled Leiden. Hutspot is mashed potatoes topped with sauteed onions and carrots, which David and Julia prepared for us for that night's dinner. The street fair was going full tilt--we bought fresh stroopwafels hot off the griddle--two thin wafers glued together with a thin layer of caramel. Very good, but very sweet, and much better than the packaged ones David brought home from his mission. In honor of the festival, the local windmill was open for exploring, so we climbed up some very steep, very narrow stairs and looked out at the old wooden gears turning the sails. This particular one was used as a flour mill. Some windmills were used for draining water out of the land, and some for commercial purposes.
The trip to Den Haag (The Hague) was about 15 minutes by train. The city is much more modern and busy, with large governmental and office buildings and shopping centers. We walked about 10 minutes to the older part of the centrum to poke around.

First spontaneous stop was the Prison Gatehouse, one of the oldest buildings in town, from 1300. Sad that the prison is always one of the first things built. That and the church--I guess things don't change all that much. It served as prison and torture chamber. We watched a video of the trial, torture, and murder by the mob of one of the famous Dutch noblemen, later exonerated from his charge of treason. It was a bit gruesome to see the torture devices and note all the little details that had been so carefully thought out so as to inflict as much pain as possible. Despite the horrible purpose of the structure, I enjoyed walking and climbing around in the building. Old buildings have a distinct yet similar smell. I guess it's old wood and brick and stone. Carpet and drywall just aren't that evocative, albeit a lot more comfortable--and warm. But I really could imagine peering through the narrow windows at the mob outside, and hearing all the shouts and screams.

Across the street from the Gatehouse is a large brick-surrounded pond with a fountain, next to the Binnenhof (Parliament Building). They were typical European--large and impressive stone walls, but with Dutch rooflines.

Behind this compound we visited our first art museum, the Mauritshuis. Built as a private home, although it's hard now to see how it functioned as a home, it has a small collection but it's almost all of highly regared works by Dutch Masters, which is the period I most wanted to see. It was so impressive to see the paintings in person, so different from seeing them in a book. The colors are noticeably brighter, the light the artist conveyed was much more engaging. We bought a print of one of my favorites, "View of Delft" by Vermeer, but it doesn't come close. But it reminds me of the value of seeing art in person. Other favorites were "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (Vermeer), and "Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp" (Rembrandt), which I included mainly because seeing it in person changed my mind and made me like it. Also saw several interesting floral still lifes, although despite the symbolic interpretation of the inclusion of bugs (imperfection and decay) and butterflies (change and resurrection), I still wish they had just painted the flowers.

Spontaneous jaunt number 2 was Tyler's interest in heading out to the beach. So on to the tram and through the city and out to the coast. We passed the embassy district, a large park, and the International Court of Justice. The North Sea was windy and cold, but we still walked down to the sand, which was studded so thickly with small shells that the sand crunched as you stepped. But now we can say we've seen the North Sea, age-old enemy of the below-sea-level Dutch.

Back on the tram, the train, and the crowds to Leiden, where we picked up some currant juice, panekuchen (pancakes), and lemon qwark at the market; and some oliebollen (cherry, apple, and pineapple) and frites (French fries) with mayo, ketchup, and curry ketchup from the fair's street vendors.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Netherlands, Day 2 - Delft

Slept in until 11, trying to get acclimated, but horrified that half the day was gone. The bakery around the corner made fruit bread that morning (not cakey like our pumpkin or apple breads, but more like regular bread with bits of dried fruit) so we tried that and a loaf of sunflower, which we ate with jam and cheese, and felt very European.

Delft is known for the famous blue and white Delft porcelain. We toured the factory, which they'd been using for 300 years or so. Most of the walls are tiled with rejects or extras from various projects through the centuries, including some beautiful exterior-grade construction ceramics, which they used to decorate the courtyard garden. We watched the process of pouring molds, sketching and painting the designs. The work was beautiful but very expensive. Most stunning was a life-size tile reproduction of Rembrandt's work, The Night Watch, which is about 12 feet by 16 feet.

After the tour we toured Old Church and New Church--"new" of course meaning 1396, since "old" was way back to 1200. New Church was not that impressive except for the fact that it contains the Royal Crypt of the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange. Since the founder of the line was assassinated across the street, it was a rather unplanned decision. Old Church has the grave of Johannes Vermeer, who lived in Delft, and some stunning stained-glass windows. I really wish stained glass had caught on in the U.S. There's something to be said for inspiring surroundings to compensate for the days the sermon just doesn't cut it. High Council Sunday, anyone?

Lunch was Dutch pancakes and pofferjtes (round pancakes, similar to aebleskivers--inside Halverson memory). We tried them with ginger, apple, peach, and cherry. The train ride back was on a modern double-decker train; the ride out had been on an old Hogwarts Express-style train with individual compartments for passengers. The Leiden festival planned for the weekend had already started with the street vendors so we picked up oliebollen, a fried donut-type pastry covered in powdered sugar and usually eaten during Christmas. What's not to love? Sounds like a perfect dinner after pancakes for lunch!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The grown-ups flee

Most of our friends and acquaintances know that Tyler travels a good deal for his job. Some assume that we wallow in frequent flyer miles and must always be planning an exotic vacation. Oh that it were true. Stingy airline policies and business-class upgrades have eroded much of my mileage cache. (We joke that the suitcases may belong to Tyler, but the miles belong to me.) But for the first time in eight years, we left the kids in the able care of my soon-to-be-canonized sister-in-law Mandy, and Tyler and I spent a week in the Netherlands.

We were prompted by a batch of expiring miles, but more important, the fact that my brother David and his wife Julia are currently living in Leiden, south of Amsterdam. For one semester he is a student at Leiden University. They're living in a lovely Dutch row house on Rembrandt Street, since Rembrandt was born here so with free tickets and free accommodations, we couldn't pass up the chance.

Here's a bit from my recollections (and you don't have to slog through it all--this serves as my pitiful effort at a journal).

Day 1 - Leiden
Slightly disoriented, despite those lovely business-class seats, we collected our luggage and found David and Julia at the airport. They took us downstairs to the train station (leave it to those ever-efficient Dutch to stack the airport over the train station) and we soon arrived in Leiden to our first rainstorm--of course with jackets and umbrellas stowed in the suitcases. We arrived about 10am, and after unpacking a bit we went out to see some of Leiden.

The city is small and feels like Old Europe--brick streets, stone buildings--but not crowded. We walked around the courtyard of Pieterskerk, and the old prison and had it all to ourselves. Everyone walks or rides bicycles here--there are bikes or all descriptions everywhere you look, and all loaded down with baskets, mailbags, wheelbarrow-style attachments to carry children and dogs. Take a look at the red-brick house behind David--it's not much wider than the doorway. Hope it goes really far back...

Once the rain stopped we walked through the Hortus Botanicus, the University botanical garden. We didn't find the 400-year-old tree, but did see several that predated the American Revolution. I liked their use of tree branches or logs to build raised beds, and several of the greenhouses were filled with interesting pitcher plants, cycads, and other tropicals. Vid took us to a restaurant for Doner Kebabs (Israeli-style schwarma and falafel) for lunch, and we went out for Indonesian food for dinner. The rijstafel came with two kinds of rice and 12 things to put on top of it. Spicy but good.

At home we had snacks of pancakes with orange quark (sort of like a cross between yogurt and cream cheese), which I'd had in the States, and I wish I could find in Utah. This will become a theme. Pancakes are not breakfast food to the Dutch. There are entire restaurants devoted to the pancakes, and they're full at all hours of the day.

David and Julia's apartment is so fun, albeit a bit quirky. It's a typical Dutch row house, with three floors, each about 12 feet by 20 feet, with the front door right on the sidewalk. The Dutch used to base property tax on the width of your house, hence the typical Dutch architecture is narrow but tall. Their main floor is kitchen and a small bathroom/laundry room squeezed under the staircase. The bathroom contains a toilet, but no sink or mirror. The second floor is a sitting area, and the third floor is the bedroom and the other half of the bathroom (sink, shower, and tub, but no toilet). The bedroom has four sloping ceilings rising to a point, like an attic loft. Clearly not a house designed for large families, especially with the staircases squeezed into an almost ladder-like steepness. When you wake up in the middle of the night, needing to go to the bathroom, you really think about how badly you need to, since it would require climbing two flights of narrow twisty stairs in the dark.