Cantillon Brewery: Lambic

My travel style is about 10% famous tourist sites and about 90% “what’s that?”. I’m not going to claim that I broke new ground here, because obviously, it’s a tourist site that exists to serve tourists, but it’s definitely less well trodden and a bit unique. At some point in life, every beer lover goes on a brewery tour, just like every wine lover goes on a winery tour (mine was in Reims, France and involved Roman ruins). I like beer, but I didn’t want yet another hops/grains/cook/ferment story. When I learned about the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, a small local brewery specializing in lambics, I knew that was the one.


As usual, the English language tours are far less frequent and often at odd times of the day. In this case, I was going to a beer tour in the morning. But not just any beer, LAMBIC! If you aren’t familiar with this wonderful, tart, Belgian brew, I recommend heading down to your local purveyor of imported beers and finding some. The main difference between lambic and other beer is in the yeast that is used to ferment it. Most brewers cultivate or buy yeast and add it to the wort in order to get that lovely fermentation and alcohol content. Lambic is made by exposing the wort to the open air of the very limited geographical region in and around Brussels in order to get wild yeast to do the job.

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In the past, I drank a Framboise (raspberry) lambic produced by Lindemans, or other fruit flavors, when I was living in America and was quite excited to dig more into the traditional brewing methods. Cantillon is the last lambic brewery in Brussels, and the website describes it as “a family brewery where Lambic, Gueuze, Faro and Kriek are made and where nothing has changed since 1900 when it was founded”. As a 5 generations family owned “brewery museum”, they are allowed to use old brewing techniques which are not allowed in the modern breweries.

Once our group was assembled, we went into room that looked like a pub complete with tables and a bar, where the guide gave an introduction to lambic and the process. He talked about spontaneous fermentation (that’s letting the wild yeast come and play) and the micro climate that exists in the river valley which creates the perfect environment for the unique combination of microbes that give lambic it’s distinctive flavor.

We talked a little about pollution and climate change as well. I was not the only person curious about how weather events like the heat wave we were experiencing could impact the micro-climate of the yeast. Not to mention the pollution of modern cities impacting the life cycle of microbes and impacting the wort during the open air exposure. Our guide said that yes, it was a concern for them, but because the brewery only brews when the weather is between 5 and 13 C they can be reasonably assured of a good quality of the wild yeast/bacteria balance. Although the number of viable days is shrinking.

He also told us about hops. In regular beer, fresh hops are often used to give a large amount of foam (head) and to give a strong bitter flavor (often but incorrectly described as ‘hoppy’). At Cantillon, they used dried aged hops to reduce the foam and bitterness and highlight the more subtle floral flavors of the hops.

Finally, he previewed the aging process which uses wooden barrels and can last up to three years! This particularly surprised me, as I’ve always thought of beer as a more “fresh served” kind of fermented beverage. I’ve even been warned in the past that letting beer sit too long can ruin the flavor. Apparently that’s only true for lagers, pilsner, and other lighter styles. Stouts, dark ale, and sour beers can all benefit from aging. The more you know.

Inside the Machinery

Once the introductory talk was concluded, we headed off into the guts of the brewery itself to see how the magic was made. Sadly, it was WELL outside the safe temperature range to actually see the brewery in action, but in many ways that worked out as an advantage because we could see the machinery up-close quite safely.


We toured three floors and learned about the process of making first mash and then wort from malted barley (sprouted barley) and wheat. On the first floor, the brewery has it’s own mill to grind the grains which poured directly into huge tanks to soak in hot water. Here the grain is ‘mashed’ around to extract the sugar cooked to reduce the complex carbohydrate chains to simple sugars. The solid remains of the process are sold to farmers as high protein livestock feed. Why do the farmers pay top dollar for brewery dregs? In Belgium, dairy farmers get paid by the protein content of their milk, not the mere volume of liquid produced, so it’s important to feed the cows well.

On the second floor, the liquid remains of this process are then mixed with aged dried hops and heated again to infuse the hops, kill unwanted bacteria and evaporate excess water. These two processes take only a few hours each.


Once it’s hops infused and bacteria free, the liquid is filtered again and poured into the giant shallow copper pan to expose it for 15 hours to the open air and local yeast. The open air pans are on the third floor where the roof has special panels that open to let the air circulate when it’s desired, or seal shut when not in use.


While we took turns looking in the small room with the copper pans, our guide passed around a bag of dried aged hops for us to smell and taste. I was really amazed by the top floral notes. I know it’s a flower, but hops is a flavor I think of as only bitter so it surprised me. Once I got past the petals and into the body, the bitter ‘hoppy’ taste was strong. It was a little like eating beer concentrate. I had to have some water to swallow it. He told us it’s very antibiotic so I hope it didn’t damage my gut flora. (the dried aged hop flower from Cantillon, and a living hop flower on a vine I spotted in Sweden)


From the tippy top to the bottom, we headed all the way into the basement to see the aging barrels. Usually they get barrels from other industries to reuse. They use wood instead of metal to allow oxygenation as part of the long fermentation.

The longest age is three years which produces a flat or still lambic (no bubbles). If they’re making a fruit blend, they mix the fruits in at 2 years and then often remix those with a combination of 1, 2 and 3 year ages, and then bottle it. This creates an environment where some fermentation continues inside the bottle, similar to the process of champagne. The end result is bubbles, but much more like a sparkling wine than a frothy beer.

The tour concluded with a tasting, of course. We tasted an 18 month old plain still lambic as a sample of the basic process. It’s not something I would drink often, but it was good to taste it almost like tasting an ingredient before the finished product. It’s still quite drinkable, with good flavor, a nice amount of sour (sour is the hallmark of lambic flavor) and very little bitter, proving the real success of those aged hops.

I tried a raspberry next, and I was surprised at how not sweet it was. The raspberry lambic I drank commonly in America was sweet and thick. The raspberry lambic from Cantillon was light and tart.
Because the corked bottles don’t keep after opening, only a few flavors were available as single glasses (2 included on the tour ticket). There were so many fascinating options on the menu, but I didn’t think I could really drink a whole bottle alone. I couldn’t even buy a bottle to take away since most of the brews on offer had to be opened and consumed on site, which was challenging for any one or even two people given the size. 37.5cl.


Thankfully, a couple who were also in my tour group invited myself and another solo traveler to go in on two bottles so we could all taste more. We got an elderflower and a rhubarb (nath). They were both quite tasty. Light, barely hoppy, and well flavored without being sweet, plus that nice lambic sourness. I don’t usually like sour beer but I am a steadfast lambic fan. I couldn’t drink it every day, but I’m so glad I had this chance.

I ended up chatting with the others a long time over our two bottles and discovered the other solo traveler is also an English teacher, working with EL Learners in the US in immigrant populations and working to standardize the early education to prepare them better for integration into schools and University. My we had lots of language/teacher geek out moments and decided to get lunch together afterwards. Turning strangers into friends is my favorite part of traveling. Even if we never meet again, I treasure the lives that come into mine.

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Stories Around Hamburg

My week in Hamburg was cut a little short because of the insane heat wave going on last summer. I spent an unfortunate amount of time simply being too hot and trying to recover from that. 37 C with no AirCon or even fans is treacherous. Plus, my Airbnb was up 5 flights of stairs, no elevator. I still had some interesting and unique experiences while I was there, most notably the ruins of the Cathedral of St. Nikolai, the Hamburg Harbor, the Miniature Wonderland, a wonderful ferry down the Elbe to see some old shipwrecks on the shore, a live music fountain light show in the park, and an interactive haunted history adventure!


Monday Madness

Monday was the single busiest day I had in Hamburg. I started the day with a trip to the ruins of the church of St. Nikolai because I love ruins. The spire stands as the highest point in the city of Hamburg and is quite distinctive sticking up above the surrounding trees and buildings.

bove ground, you can explore the ruins of what remain after the Firestorm of 1943, see some beautiful artwork, and take the elevator all the way to the tippy top of the tower for 360 degree views of the city.

It’s really quite delightful, and included in the elevator ticket price, is entrance to the museum located in the former cellar of the church. I’ve never been one to turn down a museum, but the experience was vastly more than I bargained for, and is getting its very own blog post. Let me just preface by saying, wow, the German’s don’t pull punches when it comes to discussing their role in the Nazi disaster.

After the memorial museum, I continued on toward the warehouse district where I had scheduled a combo harbor tour and Miniature Wonderland experience which I previously shared. I really have no idea what the tour guide said as it was 100% in German, but the harbor is really pretty, and I did get to see sunset from on the river Elbe which was a real treat.


Tuesday Too Hot
Tuesday was the hottest day. I went out for food and the restaurant was lovely but sweltering without Air-con or fans. I decided beer is hydrating. It’s certainly more available than water. I had the most tender pork and wonderful sauerkraut.


I thought I could find a cafe like Starbucks to enjoy AC and iced latte until it was time to go to the park in the evening but if they had AC it couldn’t compete the weather. One cafe that actually had a visible ac was out of ice for drinks.

In the end, I had to give up on everything and head back to my room where at least I could get ice and a cold shower. I’m genuinely worried for the people in Europe if climate change continues to serve up these super hot summers in towns without the infrastructure or social awareness to handle them. Even something as simple as putting a 3/4 full water bottle in the freezer in preparation of a hot day out was a complete novelty to my German hostess. In future, I’m not planning to return to the mainland of Europe during the summer months ever again.


Shipwrecks on the Beach, Cruises on the Elbe, it’s Wednesday!


Way down the river at Blankenese there are some slightly famous shipwrecks. Old craft that were simply not ever cleaned up, yet are so close to the shore that they are completely exposed at low tide. It sounded cool… or… at least interesting, even if the weather was still too hot. Sadly, I had the only day of difficulties with the Hamburg transit that day. The 50 minute journey took 2 hours and I got to the wrecks 45 minutes after low tide instead of 15 minutes before. Despite this setback, I did get to see them mostly out of the water and in the shade with the wind it was a nice place to sit and rest and watch the tide come in.


I don’t much like swimming alone at larger beaches. I seem to be good with smaller places, I was fine in the Philippines in the rivers, but not the beaches. I like swimming in the ocean if I’m snorkeling, but not just wandering into the water from the shore unless I’m with a group. Whatever the reason, I didn’t go swimming in the Elbe that day, but once I cooled in the shade, I was content to sit and watch the river and enjoy the breeze.


On my way to the ferry terminal, I saw a marker on Google Maps called “magic tree” so of course I had to stop and look. I have no idea what it was or how it got labeled on the map, but it was pretty?


This ferry ride was everything I wanted. Very few humans, a seat in the shade with a breeze and a nice view. They even got close to a few points of interest since it’s a tour ferry. Much better than the overfilled boat tour I’d taken as a combo with the Miniature Wonderland ticket.


The ferry dropped me off downtown at St. Pauli’s, a famous bustling cultural hub in Hamburg. I had a delicious salmon sandwich at Pier 10 then went to the night market. It was a little less “market” and more “outdoor bar” with some food trucks but still cool. I drank a beer and got some specialty cheese.


Thursday: Fountains and Flowers and Music oh my!
Another extremely hot day. I stayed in all day, drenching myself in cold water and holding a frozen water bottle to my neck. When the sun got lower and the temperatures dropped back below 30C, I went out to the botanical gardens. I decided to go out before sunset despite the heat because I wanted a chance to see the actual gardens, but my main goal was to see the fountain and light show with live music accompaniment that is a nightly feature at the gardens in summer. I walked slowly, taking my time to enjoy the flowers and take lots of pictures.

The gardens were stunning, if slightly wilted from heat. More locals came out to enjoy the relief of the relatively cooler evening air and to eat some ice cream by the lake. I even ran into a swing dancing group cutting a rug in an open pavilion in the park.

Then, when I was ready for a rest, I sidled up to the in-park restaurant for dinner. I decided to finally try currywurst. I’d seen it all over the place but hadn’t eaten any yet because I was trying to enjoy what I thought of as “traditional German” food. In the end, I gave in because currywurst was so ubiquitous I had to accept it as a local specialty. I’m not really sure it’s related to curry. It’s a wurst (sausage) with sauce that may be tamarind since it tasted a bit fruity and tart, I think it was sprinkled with turmeric powder. It was nice but somehow nether Indian nor German. I don’t know the fascination but at least I can say I’ve tried it.

For the concert, I found a spot by the water early on as the lawns around the lake began to fill up with families on picnic blankets. I watched ducks and geese be unbelievably blase about humans even as toddlers chased then around the grass.

I’ve been to a lot of fountain shows, I love them all, but what makes the Hamburg show so unique is that it’s all live. The music is performed live, and the person controlling the fountains and lights is activating all of it live. It’s not a pre-programmed computer controlled performance, so it’s not as perfect or technically marvelous as some, but it has the tremendous advantage of being totally unique every time, and of involving live performance artists. I was sitting so close to the edge I got sprayed by the fountains from time to time which was a welcome respite from the day’s heat. One day, I’ll buy a better night time camera, but here’s a little snippet to give you an idea of the show.


Hamburg was an up and down experience going from extreme heat and misery to wonderful, captivating experiences when the heat eased off. I wish I could have experienced the city more fully in better weather because I really loved everything I was able to experience while there.

It’s basically impossible for me to fit a whole city into one post, and Hamburg is no exception. I’ve already published the story of Miniature Wonderland, and following this post will be the deeply emotional ride through the St. Nikolai WWII memorial museum, and finally the thrilling conclusion of my last adventure in Hamburg: The Dungeon!!!!!!

EU Mobile Data : An Informative Rant

While WiFi is becoming more common, and the EU recently passed the free roaming rules, getting mobile data as a non-EU resident is more challenging than it needs to be. I read a lot of blogs before I went and no one really seemed to know what I should do. If you’re an EU citizen, it’s great, because you can travel anywhere in the EU and use your home plan without paying more. As a tourist, it gets … complicated.

Some people (mostly older than me) may wonder why I’m so data dependent. It is really a convenient way to combine your travel guide, phrasebook, map, and camera in one little device. Sure, paper can’t “break down” but it can be heavy to carry all of those things, and they can be lost or damaged, too. I just like being able to look up any and all necessary info on the go while traveling. How and where to get my SIM card is one of the most critical parts of preparing for a trip.

This post is part rant, and part hopefully useful information for future travelers who encounter the same obstacles I did.


Paris:

I arrived in the airport quite late at night and all the shops that might have had SIM cards were closed. Instead, I got my first SIM card the following morning at a little neighborhood shop. I opted to use LycaMobile as my service provider.

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I bought a month worth of data thinking it would work all over Europe. I was wrong. I can’t tell you what you should buy for an EU trip starting in Paris, but I advise that whatever company you chose, start with the minimum purchase and add more GB later if it works. That way if it stops working when you cross a border, you don’t loose as much. Oh, and don’t expect to be able to add data or minutes using any online form of payment unless you’re a resident of the country you bought the SIM card in since they don’t let foreign bank accounts pay online!


Belgium:
My mobile data stopped working as soon as the bus crossed the France-Belgium border. It said I was running with 3G but refused to load anything. I tried to fix it but nothing worked. Brussels has a lot of free WiFi so I survived my arrival, but the smaller towns were not so convenient.

I was stuck going to Ghent without data because it was the only time I could see St. Bavo’s, but the next day back in Brussels I tried to find the LycaMobile shop, thinking maybe they could get my SIM card from France to work.

I walked around aimlessly because I just could not orient myself on the map without mobile data to fill in the blanks. I used to read paper maps, I feel like I’m usually good at maps, but for some reason the streets of downtown Brussels were confusing as heck to me.


Finally I found it and it turned out to be two dudes in a tiny room with one fan and one desk and a lot of people in line. (That photo is from Google Maps, the day I went it was sunny and there were WAY more people in line, but this is about what it looked like.) The line was short when I walked up but it grew fast. LycaMobile is the cheap phone service of choice in the EU which is why I picked it, but I was not the only person having problems. In Belgium you have to register your sim card at an authorized shop and there aren’t many of them. The only other white people in the line were also backpackers.

The guy who helped me really did his best. He tried everything to get it to work and when he couldn’t he took it to his boss. In the end the answer was definitive: LycaMobile France and LycaMobile Belgium aren’t really the same company, just owned by the same company, so this isn’t really our product.

I don’t blame the guys at the shop (well maybe the one in Paris who should have known this was going to be a problem), but I must recommend AGAINST LycaMobile for non-EU residents who want to do multiple countries. They get good reviews online which is why I chose them, but when I went back and looked later, all the good reviews were from EU citizens.
Orange had some bad reviews from non-EU citizens that were basically once they got your pre-paid money, they don’t care if your service works.

Proximus looked like my best option so I went to find the one in the train station. The line was long again but it was a real retail store and not some shady looking box with two guys at one desk in front of a roll up security door the way LycaMobile had been. (this photo is from Proxiumus’ website, but you get the idea)

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When it was my turn the sales person helped me to understand the way the card worked as well as how to top up. For 10€ I got the card and 500Mb. It doesn’t seem like much but they’re is a lot of free WiFi around, so it is enough if you’re careful about uploading and streaming. I asked the sales clerk about the Netherlands and she said she thought it should work but urged me not to buy too much data just in case (refreshing to be urged to spend less!).

Important to note, that while the SIM must be purchased in a regulated shop and registered, top up cards are all over the place. I was told you can only top up online with a Belgian credit card, so once I leave Belgium won’t be able to get more. I was going to be in Belgium technically 2 weeks, one in Brussels and the other in Lanaken, the small town near Maastricht, Netherlands where my Airbnb was located just on the Belgian side of the border. During that week I’d be going across to The Netherlands and Germany, and I figured if the data worked I could buy lots before finally leaving Belgium for good.

One more thing I noticed, when I got LycaMobile in France I had to activate roaming on my phone for it to work… even though I was in France. I thought it was weird but also thought maybe it was a feature of the global plan that it was just always roaming.
My Belgian plan looked like normal data, no roaming needed in Belgium which is more in line with my expectations.

Later that week, on my way to Antwerp, I had another mobile mishap. I didn’t realize I needed the PIN code to restart my phone, sooooo I accidentally locked myself out for the day (the PIN was in my hotel room and I was already at the train station!) In addendum to recommending Proximus, I would urge users to carry their SIM pin on them in case the phone resets.


The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway

Proximus worked smoothly across Lanaken (Brussels), Maastricht (Netherlands) and Aachen (Germany). I decided to buy what I hoped was enough data for the rest of my trip through Germany since I thought I would not be able to top up once I left Belgium.

I had zero issues all throughout the Netherlands (Den Haag, Amsterdam), crossing back into Belgium (Leige), and in Hamburg, Germany. The Proximus service occasionally took a few minutes to adjust to crossing a border while it searched for a new network but it operated exactly as advertised.

I also discovered the happiest of circumstances while in Germany. I accidentally forgot to use my WiFi to upload photos and it ate all my data. I had been told that it would not be possible to purchase top ups outside Belgium without a Belgian bank account, however, the Proximus website had a PayPal option!!!!! I was able to top up my account from Germany using my Korean PayPal. Plus, buying top-ups came with free Mb, so it was actually a very good deal financially. I was able to stop worrying about hoarding my data bytes and just enjoy the trip for the rest of the EU countries.

TDLR? LycaMobile BAD. Proximus GOOD!

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Moscow

I heard that there was tons of free WiFi all over Moscow, so I decided that my 20 hour layover didn’t require a SIM card. I regret this decision.

I was able to use the WiFi in my hostel with no issue, but when I tried to log into the free WiFi at the metro station, I could not get anything to load.

During lunch, I asked the staff of the hotel restaurant if there was any way to log on, but without a room number or Russian phone number it was impossible. They didn’t even have a guest account available for customers of the bar or restaurant. The more places I went, the more I realized this is just the way it works. Even Starbucks, a place famous for it’s free WiFi was inaccessible to anyone without a Russian phone number.

Wi-Fi has already been rolled out on six of the metro's 12 lines.

Eventually, I was able to figure out the public WiFi on the metro; however, two things: it only worked IN the subway cars (not on the platform or in the station), and the internet access was severely limited, allowing me to use Google Search and Google Maps, but not Facebook or Instagram. It did help a little, but it was hard because the service would also stop every time the cars pulled into a station!

So, if someone tells you not to bother with a SIM card because there’s plenty of free WiFi they are both right and wrong. Depending on when your helpful adviser was last in Moscow, there may have been an abundance of free public WiFi. However, just like the EU is changing it’s roaming rules, the Kremlin is kracking down on anonymous internet use. In 2014 the government began to implement laws requiring netizens to have some kind of ID to get online. I’m assuming this is why you have to be a guest at a hotel to use their wifi (the hotel collects your ID), or you have to get your confirmation code via text to a phone number that is also matched to your ID somewhere.

The WiFi is still free to use in the sense that it doesn’t cost money, but you can’t use it without some kind of ID. If I had known, I would have made getting a SIM a higher priority since it seems they are not too hard to find, but by the time I realized that WiFi was going to be impossible, I was more than halfway through my day and had no way to look up where to buy a SIM!


I didn’t receive any kickback for reviewing any of the companies above. This is just my experience and opinion in the hopes that my trial and error may help out a fellow traveler some day. Also, as I noticed myself, the times they are a’changin’, so if you’re reading this post in the distant future, please double check that these policies are still in effect for the time of your trip.

What Happened to the Pictures?

Some readers may have noticed that the most recent post about Moscow had non-functional pictures. Some more intrepid readers may have noticed photos from older posts disappearing. What’s going on?

Well, either WordPress or Google Photos has changed a linking policy so that all the photos I hot linked from my own Photos account are now broken links and unavailable images.

I have since fixed the Moscow post and adjusted the scheduled posts for the duration of my holiday so there should not be any missing photos going forward.

However, since I am on vacation, I will not be able to address the issue on older posts from before January 23, 2019 until after I return to my office in March.

I apologise for any confusion or inconvenience and thank you for your patience and for letting me know about the issue so promptly. Thanks for reading, and please continue to enjoy the blog and the Instagram for all my adventures past, present, and future. ❤

More Moscow: Izmailovo Kremin

If possible, in every place I go, I like to find at least one less well known but still terribly interesting place to go. Atlas Obscura has become one of my best research and planning tools for this particular goal. In Moscow, I settled on a place called Izmailovo Kremlin. The website described it as “an unexpected, fairytale-like cultural wonderland” so of course I had to go. It was a bit of an adventure just finding the locale, and the weather was not especially co-operative, but it was definitely an entirely unpredictably unique experience. Plus, I got some bonus political commentary fodder at the airport on the way out!


Getting Lost and Found

Without any WiFi, even in restaurants or cafes, I was totally unable to look up the route to travel there. I found myself standing in the Revolution Square (red square) metro station with no idea how to get to my goal. I racked my brains trying to remember how in the world I had navigated complex subway systems before my life was data-plan dependent and finally remembered the existence of metro maps!

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I knew the name of the station (Partizanskaya) I wanted to go to, but I couldn’t find the station on the subway map. I didn’t even know which color line to look at. Finally, I fell back on the most low tech of options… I asked the person at the information desk. It’s not that I mind talking to humans, I like talking to humans quite often, but I have become rather dependent on my map apps and had nearly forgotten how I used to do this when I didn’t have a smart phone. Thankfully she was able to pull out a Metro pamphlet with English and show me where I wanted to be in relation to where I was.

Armed with this knowledge I set off into the subway. It turns out the one place you can maybe sometimes get actually free WiFi is ON the subway (not in the station, but in the subway car). This WiFi did allow me to pull up maps and do basic google searches, but it blocked me entirely from any and all social media platforms. It was also very hit or miss and dropped out quite often, but I grasped it like a lifeline to verify my travel directions.

At this point it is important to note that I cannot read Russian letters. I picked up a couple just looking around. The thing that looks like “P” is really “R”, and П is “P”, and the thing that looks like Greek “theta” is “F”, and the thing that looks like a backward N is “i”… and I just do this because reading is such an important part of my world that my brain needs to make sense of the symbols it knows are words. Whenever I saw English and Russian side by side I’d try to piece it together. But, mostly, I was relying on the English transliteration of these words to find the right Metro stop because, bless, they are all written in both alphabets at all the stations and on the maps.

Anyone who has ever tried to learn a complex new word or name in a language quite different from your own will understand how all our mental tricks for remembering are totally useless! If it’s more than two syllables, I’m going to need to hear, say, write and read it several times to really remember. So, when I’m looking for a shortcut to help me identify things like metro station names, I tend to look at the first sound and last sound (or letter cluster) in a word and forget the middle. So “Partizanskaya” became “P -something – kaya” in my head. Most of the time this works very well.

Most of the time.

On the blue line in Moscow, there is another stop that is “p-something-kaya”, Pervomayskaya, that is only two stops over. Now that my linguistic brain has had more time to look at the map, I realize that “kaya” is basically “station” or “platform” and ALL the stops end this way. Instead of getting the beginning and end of the station name, I actually was looking for “P-station”. No wonder that didn’t work out well. In hindsight, I can see several other mnemonic aids that would have been far more effective, but alas, at the time, p-something-kaya seemed like such a great idea.

I actually rode outside the brown circle during this trip. There’s a wall or fence there. The metro comes out from underground and you get to see some scenery. I’m a little tripped out by the fence. The first time I saw it I thought maybe it was the edge of a park (because I was looking at the wrong part of the map), but on my way back in, with proper spacial orientation, I realized that it lined up with line 14, the Moscow Central track, the edge of the city proper. Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t able to find any official information on whether this fence goes all the way around or covers just a part of the area, but I did find an interesting article on fences in Russian culture.

I got off the metro at the wrong P-something and was staring intently at the signs and street names trying to orient myself on a Google Map that refused to tell me where I was (GPS doesn’t need data or WiFi, but still worked very sporadically in Moscow). There were some people handing out pizza coupons at the metro entrance and I asked them if they knew where the Izmailovo Kremlin was. I was hoping that even if they didn’t understand my English that my pronunciation of “Izmailovo Kremlin” would be decent enough to get the idea across, but they were flummoxed. Thinking I was going to just have to pick a direction and start walking, a young lady asked timidly in accented English if she could help.

I accepted gratefully and she was able to explain to me my mistake with the P-something station names and directed me to go back two stops and that it would be quite obvious from there. One more reason to get unlimited metro travel if it’s possible is the almost inevitable need to back track, or side track or otherwise take more trips than would be necessary if you weren’t a lost tourist.

Fairy-tale Skyline

When I did make it to the right stop, it was fairly obvious which way to go as soon as I got to the main intersection. Izmailovo Kremlin’s distinctive fairy-tale buildings are visible a good way off, and gave me the almost immediate impression that I was walking into the Russian version of the magic kingdom.

Not really knowing anything about this place, nor being able to read the signs, I just followed the road into the large and colorful gate. The gray skies were a disappointment since bright sunlight would have brought out the color more, but I was determined to make the best of it. However, just as I entered the main gate, a torrential downpour that had more in common with an Indian monsoon than a European rain began. It was even more intense than the rain that had fallen while I was walking around the real Kremlin. The concrete pathways of the nearly empty market became ponds and rivers within a few moments.

Recalling how quickly the earlier deluge had subsided, I huddled up next to an empty stall under the wooden awning and exchanged “what can you do?” looks with the vendors nearby. It took about 15-20 minutes to calm down and even then, walking was precarious.

At first I thought these were simply vendors lining the entrance of the park. It’s fairly common to see the souvenir shops at the entrance/exit of any attraction, but as I walked more, I realized that the entire space I was in was nothing but market, and more than 90% was empty. I have seen pictures online where it looks full, but I have to think that was just a really creatively aimed shot because it is huge. I stopped and spoke with several vendors selling matryoshka (nesting) dolls. I had one when I was a child and I thought that some authentic Russian dolls from Russia would be nice gifts for my niblings.

If you are in the market for unique matroyshka, this is the place. While there were plenty of vendors offering the same factory mass produced dolls as every souvenir stand in Russia, there were also many vendors who had exclusive deals with local artists or were themselves artists. I spoke with one man whose wife painted the dolls he sold. They were exquisite. Each set, he said, took her 10+ days to paint and he was selling them for 40-60$ US. You can’t GET original hand-painted art of that quality at that price most places. After even just a few booths it became obvious which styles everyone had and which styles were unique among the vendors. I wish I’d been in the market for some art because I was honestly blown away. Some sets had more than 10 layers and the smallest doll was only the size of a lentil. In the end, I settled on some of the lower cost, but still unique styles to send to my sister’s kids so they could have something special, but not too special to play with.

Ghost Town

Once I moved in past the opening cluster of booths (which were still less than half occupied) the whole place turned into a ghost town. Row after row of empty, disheveled booths. Perhaps once grandiose decorations in a state of discoloration and disrepair. Gardens and their statues overgrown and wilting. And everything empty and silent. It was eerie, but more than that, it was bewildering. Where were the fairy tale buildings? Where were the museums? Where was all the stuff that was not market?

I could slightly see some interesting looking buildings that were off to one side of the market area but had no idea how to get to them. I followed path after path that led me to soggy, deteriorating and empty spaces for displays or cafes. A huge covered space of tables and benches stood abandoned, no restaurant in sight. I don’t know if it was the rain or the season that led to the strange emptiness of the park that day.

Finally, I met up with a group of Spanish tourists who were also trying to find a way into the “other side” of the park. They were looking for a place to eat as well as the advertised attractions. In the end, we found a single bridge that went from the gardens at the back of the market up and into a much more active looking area. Alas, the bridge was flooded. The sides of the structure went from footpath to handrail in one seamless block, allowing no spaces for air or water to escape. Instead of being built, as most bridges are, with a slight arch that would sweep water off the ends, this bridge sagged in the center and allowed a positive lake of rainwater to collect across more than 3 meters of the path. I was so focused on crossing, I forgot to photo the flood, but here’s more eerily empty shopping stalls!

We searched for an alternative route in vain. None of us were wearing waterproof shoes, and I had so underestimated the rain in Moscow that I packed my rain-covers in my checked luggage! The idea of spending the rest of the day, the whole flight back to Korea, and the bus ride to my home with damp socks was not appealing. I was just about to give up and head back to the main entrance when one of the guys figured out the secret: walk on your heels! He carefully walked, stiff-legged, placing only the heel of each shoe into the water gently so as not to splash and made it to the other side with dry socks.

Slowly the rest of us followed suit with someone I assumed was the “dad” of the trip laughing and filming the girls who were walking across as I did. I expected to feel the cold seeping wetness in my socks at any moment, but I did make it to the other side dry. I’m sure I looked like a perfect idiot, but I’ll take looking silly over wet socks any day.

Crossing into the Secret Place

Finally we were in the fairy-tale realm. It was still astonishingly empty, especially compared with the huge crowds at the real Kremlin in Red Square. I bustled around taking pictures and exploring the space. There were several places to get food and drinks, although I was still happy after my Metropol meal. Most of the museums were either closed or thinly veiled gift shops. And there was an excess of brides. I think there is actually a chapel there, but definitely a wedding photography studio. I can understand why people would love to have wedding photos taken against the dramatic background, but I felt sorry for the brides that day who had gray and rainy skies. One of the Spanish tourists told me that in Spain it’s actually good luck to have rain at your wedding, so maybe they brought some of their cultural luck with them that day.

I meandered into the church of St. Nikolas and up the stairs of the central hall. It wasn’t open that day either, but I think the interior is used for parties or receptions. There seemed to be a stage in front of an especially colorful building, but no performances listed. I don’t know what the experience would have been like if it had been fully open and bustling, but I rather enjoyed the silence and stillness after the rush and crowds elsewhere. I felt like it was my own little private discovery I was sharing with only a few other people that day. I also felt like it gave me a view of Russia behind the curtains.

I think every country wants to show it’s best face on websites and tourism videos. I know for a fact that LA doesn’t really look the way tourists expect it to. However, I find that some countries try harder to keep tourists in the “pretty” places than others. China, for example, works very hard to create an image in tourist areas that you have only to walk a few blocks away from to realize isn’t really accurate. Most tourists never do, though. Moscow felt like that to me. Because I used the public transit, got lost a couple times, and went to this out of the way attraction on what seemed to be a rather slow day, I saw parts of the city and the culture that I would have missed on a well managed tour.

Of course, there’s only so much I could see on a 20 hour layover no matter how lost I got, so I know that my impressions are only cursory. Nonetheless, I’m glad I chose to set out solo and take my chances, even if that meant taking some lumps along the way.

Toward the end of my time in Izmailovo Kremlin, the sun came partway out, creating a dynamic sky of dark clouds with golden light. It made me happy, standing on the top floor balcony and looking over the church and square below, to get this little sliver of sunlight as my farewell.

On my way back out, I paused at one more puddle to take a reflection photo. This requires squatting down to get the camera lens as close to the level of the puddle as possible, and some other tourists stopped to watch me. When I stood up again they politely asked what I had been doing and I showed the mother and her two tween girls the effect of using a simple rain puddle as a reflecting surface. One of the girls was instantly enchanted and dropped down to try it out for herself. After very few pointers, she had it down pat, and even got a beautiful shot with one of the brides walking away. I missed my chance at that one because I was looking over her shoulder playing teacher, but I think it was a worthy trade.

I took a lot of photos that day, so here’s a little video montage with the rest of my best shots from Izmailovo Kremlin.

Pravda in the Airport

The airport express from central Moscow to SVO is, like all the public transit in Moscow, quite efficient. It was a little crowded, but affordable and on time with no unexpected troubles. It did let us off a very long way from the international terminal, but that gave me a chance to get some coffee and new earbuds for the long flight back.

I’m very glad I was already checked into my flight and had a boarding pass. The lines for customs and security check were ridiculous. I had finished my coffee and of course emptied my water bottle during this process and had no recourse but to buy water from the airport vending machines. I still haven’t found a single source of free drinking water in the Moscow airport.

Last but not least, while waiting for the boarding line to shrink enough to be worth standing in, I noticed one of the large TVs was rolling trailers and advertising for one of Russia’s major news networks…. Russia’s state sponsored “news” networks.

As an American who actually remembers the USSR and the cold war, I grew up with some ideas about Russia that were surely American propaganda, but one of the things I learned about that was not was that the Soviet’s state run newspaper was called “Pravda” which means “truth”. It was anything but. Between the end of the cold war and the beginning of the cyber war, there was a short but glorious time where we were able to get some relatively accurate information about the Soviet state.

I didn’t bother much with Russia when I was studying my MA because I very foolishly thought we were allies now. Oh, past me, how optimistic you were. I did, however, study the entire history of nuclear weapons and nuclear non-proliferation activities which MOSTLY involved us and the USSR / Russia so I had to learn a modicum of Russian history and culture as part of that. Let me just say, when the Guardian called the Russian state run media “a propaganda machine”, I don’t feel like they were exaggerating. On a scale of 1-10, I’d say it’s on the propaganda side of Breitbart, well past Fox News, and can’t even see the BBC with a telescope.

And yet, because of what it is, it cannot help but spew propaganda, especially to a captive audience in the airport. In English, so we know it was directed at us and not the locals. Putin uses any and all foreign media bashes on Russia to bolster his own popularity and prove the greatness of Russia, but unlike Trump who throws angry temper tantrums on Twitter when he doesn’t like what other countries (or his own’s) free press has to say about him, Putin and the state sponsored media are using … sarcasm.

“The more people watch, the angrier Hillary gets.”

“Warning! Propaganda Machine in action!”

“Missed a flight? Lost an election? Blame us!”

…and several more I failed to make note of. Other than remarking on a fascinating and somewhat frightening public communication tool, it had little effect on me, but seeing the way that these English slogans were written and presented in Russia made me take a serious think about some of the slogans coming out of the MAGA faction on social media, where the Russian trolls and bots live. Especially that one about making Hillary angry. I mean, why would Russians care if she’s mad? The only people still chanting “lock her up” are at Trump rallies.

Russia may have beautiful scenery and nice people, but that final interaction before boarding my flight was a chilling reminder that they are not now and possibly have never been our allies. The competition between “the West” and “the Soviet” has always been one of ideology, fought in the shadows with science and spies. When I look at things like “post truth” or “alternative facts” it seems like their ideas are creeping in like mold under paint.

I’m a big fan of multiculturalism and respecting cultures different from my own. I don’t know if it was my cold war upbringing, or if it’s a more objective analysis that things like “facts” and “free press” and “transparency” (glasnost) are necessary for a happy and healthy society, but either way, I just can’t accept the notion that Soviet ideology is the right way forward. I’m grateful to have had the chance, however brief, to visit. It helps me to remember that the people in each country are mostly kind and just want to live happily the same way we do. Whatever I think of their leaders or government policies, I hope I can always remember the regular people I met on the streets and in the subways who helped me when I was lost and shared the beautiful things in their city with me.

Adventures in Maastricht

The Netherlands offered more challenges to me as a traveler than any other country I went to last summer. Despite the host of obstacles in weather, transit, and basic cultural snobbery, I still had several positive experiences while I was there. I chose Maastricht after reading a fellow blogger’s rave reviews, and I can just about imagine that if I went there in better weather… and had my own transport (rental car, scooter, heck even a bike) it would have been a significantly more magical experience. The highlights of Maastricht for me were the caves (because if it’s underground, you know I’m going), the beautiful cathedral converted into a bookstore, and the tiniest Cafe in the Netherlands.


Fort Sint Pieter

The caves I found are part of the Fort of St. Pieter and are such an extensive series of tunnels that it is not permitted to enter without a guide lest one become lost and die. Seriously. I signed up for a combo tour to include the fort, which turned out to be well worth it. Even though you can climb up to the fort and see the outside unaccompanied, the guide has the keys to get inside and also a million interesting stories.

In 1673, D’artagnan and his army invaded Maastricht under the orders of Louis XIV. Yes, THAT D’artagnan. At the time, there was no fort atop the mountain, and the French army used that mountainside as an attack point to break down the city walls. Later when the Dutch reclaimed the town,  they decided to never let that happen again. Maastricht was a highly contested and often invaded territory for several hundred years, but eventually advances in weaponry made city walls obsolete, but the fortress atop the mountain remained.

I was surprised at how dark and gloomy the interior of the fortress actually was. I think I expected it to be more like a castle, but the guide pointed out the necessity of thick walls and arched passages to withstand artillery fire. We got to walk though the tunnels and see the different ways soldiers would communicate in such a large space as well as some arrow slits and cannons. The communication was done by means of drums placed in such a way as to take advantage of the building’s acoustics. A leader could issue orders from the center of the building and have a drummer beat out code that would be heard all over. It was quite dark in most places, so I don’t have very good photos.

The very top part of the fort was used by Nazis in WWII to watch for Allied aircraft, but the tunnels underneath the fort that honeycombed the surrounding countryside for miles were used to smuggle people into free Belgian territory at the same time.


The caves themselves were originally quarries, but became shelters where fathers could bring families and livestock to hide during invasions, and we’re used from Roman vs Viking times up through WWII for that purpose. There were places to cook and sleep like little apartments carved into the tunnels. They also grew mushrooms and chicory, which my guide was surprised to learn Americans brew into coffee (New Orleans!).

Now the tunnels are full of art.

The guide stressed the importance of staying with the group since people still can easily get lost without a guide because there are hundreds of km of tunnels. He told a story of a couple of young men who just barely escaped death because they happened to find a “chimney” or vertical tunnel that led up to a field. A farmer heard them and a rescue was organized, but it was pure luck.

Going underground was probably the highlight of my day/days because it was only 11°C underground, which was a wonderful relief from the 30°C+ weather of the day. Surprisingly, despite the drought, a million beautiful wildflowers grew around the fort and caves which made for a lovely scene to walk to and from the bus stops with.


Downtown Maastricht

During my week in Lanaken/Maastrict, I was having the worst week of my holiday due to some serious personal emotional stuff, so I spend a goodly amount of time in the Airbnb trying to stay cool both thermally and mentally. I also did more than average day trips away from the city including the Fort and Caves above, the amazing Carolus Thermen Spa in Aachen, and the oddly Disney-esque town of Valkenburg. On my last day, I decided to try out the city of Maastricht one last time.

When I arrived downtown, there was a large flea market in the nation square and it was mostly full of the kind of antiques and knick-knacks I found endlessly fascinating as a child, but don’t really know what to do with now. I mean buckets of old spoons? Art made from driftwood? It’s neat to look at but no room in the luggage. I did buy a nice summer dress, lightweight and a soft gray that reflected the bright blue sky. I changed into it as soon as I could and it made a world of difference. It was easily the best purchase of the trip.

After exploring the market, I set off to find the bookstore in a cathedral, which is dead cool as a concept. I read about it in other blogger’s “things to do in Maastricht” and decided I would check it out if I was able. I am so glad I made the time! Bookstores are already a little bit sacred space for me, so to combine the deliberate awe-inspiring architecture of a Gothic cathedral with thousands of beautiful books! Stunning.

Because cathedrals have such incredibly high ceilings, the bookstore installed multiple levels almost like balconies, allowing more book space but keeping the room open and the architecture continuously observable. I’d been in other converted churches that lost a lot of what made the cathedral “style” by breaking it up into usable space. This was by far the best combination. It was awesome to climb the central column of books and see the high vaulted ceilings up close. I got a little vertigo but worth it.

Not only was it beautifully constructed, it was also a great bookstore! Well stocked and diverse. I saw several books I wanted to make better friends with as well as lots of old favorites. I was amazed by the number of people inside, not just admiring the architecture but loaded down with books to buy. There’s even a small cafe in the back and a kid’s section!

     

If you have to live in a city that has a plethora of leftover cathedrals, I think this might just be the best way they can be put to use in the modern era.

On my way to my next stop I encountered another unique street performance. I was growing used to seeing buskers performing for money on the streets, but this couple decked out in ballroom gear waltzing around accompanied by live, tux-clad musicians definitely stood out!

Finally I headed over to have vlaai and koffie at the smallest cafe in the Netherlands. Vlaai is a kind of pie that’s popular in the Netherlands. It’s not a specific flavor (I had several flavors while I was there) but more the fact that the construction is mid-way between pie and tart that I can’t really say it’s exactly like any other dessert I’ve had. It does tend to be thicker in crust than either of those treats, which was startling at first, but the more I ate, the more I liked them. The vlaai I had that day was apricot, and so cool and fresh you could believe they just picked the fruit this morning. It was the exact balance of sweet and tart I look for in a perfect apricot, somehow even capturing the texture of perfectly ripe.

In addition, “cafe” doesn’t only mean “coffee shop”. This place has a full menu of food, beer/wine/cocktails, dessert and coffee. It’s also very popular. The indoor seating is nearly non-existent, but the patio seating seemed quite generous, even though it was completely full. I ended up sitting on a cushion on a curb next to the building with a tiny table lower than my knees. It was under a tree and so I had shade, and didn’t mind at all. By the time I finished there was a line even for those small curbside spots!

   


In the past I’ve read and repeated that the first and last things you do on a holiday define the experience. While Lanaken/Maastricht was in the middle of my summer, and in many ways represents the most difficult things I had to overcome, I’m glad I had these positive experiences on my last day there. It leaves me with a sense of what could be if I hadn’t been so ambushed by my health and the weather that week, and it reminds me that even in the midst of dark times, there are still wonderful adventures to be found and enjoyed.

Winter Vacation 2019

Happy New Year! I’m so excited to start my new year off with a lovely holiday adventure. Thanks once more to my fancy Korean University Job™, I get a nice long break from the students lasting from about Christmas until March 1st. While I did have some fiddly bits of professorial paperwork that keep me at my desk for part of that time, there’s no unending deskwarming like I was subjected to at that EPIK job.  I’ve scrimped and saved on rent, food and local expat parties in order to treat myself to another 6 weeks on the road!


Jan 10- 19: Taiwan – I won’t get to see the Chinese New Year here, but I’m hoping to see some beautiful temples, museums, mountains, street food, and above all, the winter migration home of the Purple Crow Butterflies!!!! (not pictured below) I’ll be in Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung. I’m brushing up on my Mandarin in DuoLingo!

Jan 20-28: Jordan – I’m meeting up with a friend who teaches in Japan to tour my old Middle East stomping grounds again. Last time I went, I didn’t get to see everything in Petra, and almost nothing else at all. This time, we’re spending a full three days in Petra to see everything, plus a day and night at a Dead Sea resort to take in the mud, and a couple days of wandering around Amman (below) to see the ruins and the markets.

Jan 29 – Feb 11: Egypt – In a complete turn around from my normal travel patterns, my friend and I booked a 13 day almost all-inclusive tour (a few meals are not covered). I actually found one that is in line with my desired budget and it will be a relief not to have to think about transport or scheduling while I’m there. I’m brushing up on my Arabic, too, but Egyptian Arabic is nothing like what I learned, so having a guide around will come in handy. We’re supposed to get to see Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria, and Sharm el-Sheik. We’ll even be taking a 5-star Nile River cruise for a few of those days. Considering how limited my time was last time I was in Egypt, I’m really excited!!!

Feb 12-22: Malaysia – specifically, Penang. I’ve booked an Airbnb in one place for the whole time. I was only there one day last time I passed through but it seemed like the kind of town I’d enjoy for longer. I’m staying in Georgetown where I can wander around to see the street art, shopping streets, and amazing food, but I may rent a scooter and head off on a mini road trip around the small island. Plus, my host says that the Lunar New year celebrations last 2 weeks or more, so even though the official day is Feb 5, there should still be lots of decorations and events while I’m there.


While I won’t be on the blog during my vacation time, I’ve written a lot more posts about last summer and set them up to auto-publish during January, February and March by which time I hope to have some new stories from the winter adventure for you. If you want to get a real-time experience of my travels, you’ll need to hop over to the Instagram or the Facebook page where I will do my best to post something cool every day. Thanks for following ❤

Using Public Transit in Europe

I am completely spoiled by Asian transit. In Korea, my transit pass is linked to my bank card and so I just tap to get on any bus/subway/train in any city in the whole country. Tourists can buy a transit card from any convenience store that will work the same way, and also let you buy things at most convenience stores like pre-paid debit cards. I kept my transit card from Japan and used it again 3 years later with no problems. Again, they work on all the transit country-wide. I knew that visiting 8 countries in Europe would mean I’d have to navigate multiple public transit systems, but I had no idea how complex they would actually be.

This post is part rant, and part hopefully useful information for future travelers who encounter the same obstacles I did.


Paris, France:

Paris has a huge subway system, and tickets are priced by zone. It’s a good idea to look at the map and decide what zones you actually need before you buy. Buying tickets one trip at a time is the most expensive way. You can also buy a ticket book for a slight discount, which is what I did my first visit that only lasted 2 days. This summer, I was in Paris for 6 days, and wanted a better option, and one that would include buses, not only the metro.

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In the end, I bought a week long transit pass for cheaper than the 5 day tourist pass. When I asked about it the teller told me there’s no benefit to the tourist pass, that it’s basically there to bilk tourists, and I should stick to the cheaper option. Most cities have some version of the tourist card which includes “unlimited transit” and a few free attractions or discounts, however every single one I checked into was not worth it. In order to actually save money, a person would have to be running around like crazy and do 4+ activities a day!

You can see there’s a spot for a photo there, so it’s a good idea to have one ready when you buy your card. The lady who was working when I bought mine said I could add the photo later, but advised me to carry my receipt with me in case the metro authority asked to see my card and to prove it was not stolen. No need to get a fancy passport photo made, however, you can make a photocopy of your passport or other ID and use that.


Belgium:

In Brussels I got a Mobib Card with ten trips which is cheaper than buying your each trip one at a time. I was able to buy it easily in the subway station nearest to my arrival spot. The tickets are per trip, regardless of distance, and that if you have to go above ground and pass back out of the ticket scanning devices, or use a tram, there’s no transfers. Most of the Metro stations have a way you can connect underground, but be sure you get out on the correct side of the train car, since in some cases one platform leads OUT and the other leads to connecting tracks, while at other stops, it’s all the same.

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It is also worth noting that the doors on the subway cars have to be manually activated. You have to tug the handle or it doesn’t open. I was a little panicked the first time thinking I couldn’t get on, but then I saw someone else open a door and followed suit. When in doubt, watch the locals.

The only downside is that the Mobib Card is exclusively for Brussels, and I needed to figure out transit again and again when I went out to nearby cities like Ghent and Antwerp.

In Ghent I could not find the tram for a while I thought about just taking a taxi from the train station to my boat but I did eventually find it, then realized I had no idea how to use it and no way to look that information up online since the SIM I bought in Paris wasn’t working in Belgium.

I managed to get change from a convenience store and buy a tram ticket at a machine near the stop, but I couldn’t find instructions on how to use it. I got on the tram with my ticket but didn’t see any place to use it so I just sat down. Of course I was doing it wrong but no one challenged me or corrected me. I’m sure if I didn’t look like a middle aged white tourist it could have gone differently. Although I did see a lot of barrier hoping in France….

In retrospect, I think the paper tickets have RF chips in them that you tap just like a plastic transit card. *shrug, they got my money anyway.

At the Ghent train station returning to Brussels, I got confused because it looked like nothing was going back to the “Midi station” in Brussels. It turns out that there are just too many languages in Brussels. Midi is the name I had seen in Brussels, but Zuid is another name for the same thing!!!

Overall, I think the transit issues in Ghent would have been avoided if I’d had mobile data. I did wonder how people navigated these transit options before smart phones, but I also think the technology of the trans, trams and metros has upgraded from paying cash and paper tickets to having RF chips in tickets dispensed by a machine and read by another machine. It’s great automation until you don’t know how to use it.

In Antwerp I decided to walk. The places I wanted to see were all within 30 minutes walking of the main train station and I wasn’t in a hurry. As a result, I have no idea how the transit inside the city works. On my out, the trains were running late but the kind conductor lady helped me hop off and change to a faster train at one of the stops. The tickets are somewhat flexible as to which trains you use to get to your destination.


The Netherlands:

First, in Maastricht, the bus company that runs the bus between Lanaken and Maastricht is the Belgian company De Lijn, and I was able to buy a ticket at the Maastricht main station. The front of the buses had a space to insert the ticket and a date/time/remaining balance was printed on it each time. I think I ended up with about 0.60€ left unused on the ticket at the end of the week, but it was much easier than trying to buy a ticket every time.

Image result for De Lijn ticket

I needed a different transit card (the OV Card) to get around the city of Maastricht, but at least I was able to use that transit pass to buy my passage into Aachen. Once I figured out the basic system it was not too bad, and the people in the Maastricht station were quite helpful in getting me the best prices when I was getting my cards set up on the first day.

The only complaint is that because Lanaken and Maastricht are smaller towns, the buses do not run often and there is no metro at all. This requires more careful planning to get to and from places, to get back to my room at night, etc. It also requires more walking since bus stops are fewer and farther between than in big cities.

Later, in Den Haag

I need to preface this by saying Den Haag was the single WORST transit system I encountered in Europe. I was not a huge fan of Maastricht because the infrequent bus schedule, and that was not an issue in Den Haag, but what turned my brain completely inside out was the pay structure and it’s deep deep bias against foreigners. In the Netherlands, you can use the OV Card everywhere, so I was able to use the same card from Maastricht, which I thought would be a convenience…. ohhhhhh no.

When you ride in Den Haag, you have to tap in and out every time because the price of your trip is based on distance traveled; however, sometimes it double tapped or didn’t tap at all so I suddenly found myself completely out of credit on my OV card with no way to get more!

Image result for ov chipkaart

There are almost no recharging kiosks for OV in Den Haag either. I found one in the grocery store near my Airbnb, but it wouldn’t take my credit card and the cashier didn’t seem to care much. She eventually just stopped trying to even speak English which was only annoying because everyone else there had been like “of course we speak flawless English!” So, it seemed a little implausible she is the only one who doesn’t…

I tried to use the OV website to find kiosks in my area, but the website map wasn’t working… of course.

I tried to go out anyway, thinking I’d just buy a ticket on the bus but they don’t take cash and a 1hr ticket is 3.50€! I’d end up paying 7€ to go out and get back? I left the bus with sticker shock and stood around cursing the entire transit system that had robbed my card and left me with no way to top up and charged exorbitant fees to get to a top up place. Finally I decided to take the tram back to the train station and sort it out. Then the ticket box on the tram refused to take my debit card! How is a person supposed to pay for this????

I asked a ticket monitor about it because just at that moment I was feeling too honest to steal a ride. She directed me to the app where I bought a ticket then told me I didn’t need to ride all the way to the station I could just stop at Centrum and use the machine there. Great! Except when I got off to use it, it was out of order. I waited for the next tram and got on as my e-ticket was good for an hour, then realized it was going the wrong way, got off and waited again to go the other way. The only good news is they run every 10 minutes instead of 30 like in Maastricht.

I finally got to the train station and put more money on the card. I looked at my transactions history and realized that one point I was charged 4€ for a trip. If you tap in and don’t properly tap out, it’s 4€ no matter how far you go. That’s right, it costs more to mess up your transit card than to just buy the flat ticket. Gouge much?

Image result for ov chipkaart kiosk

My tram ride back from the station? .90€! It cost me 3.50€ to go using the app, and 0.90€ to go using the card. It’s worth using the OV Card, it’s just hard to use correctly. Eventually, I was able to go online to the OV website and submit a request for a refund of the over-charges and it was granted, although I still had to get to the train station kiosk to actually claim the credit.

I specifically say it’s biased against foreigners because most people who live there have their OV linked to their bank account directly, and can easily contest overcharges or incorrect charges at their leisure without worrying about not being able to pay for a trip. Meanwhile, visitors who front load the cards can still contest overcharges, but have no recourse for getting to a charging kiosk if a mistake has drained our account.

Returning from Amsterdam

The OV card isn’t evil in and of itself. I had very little issue using it in Maastricht and Amsterdam. It was nice to be able to move from city to city without having to invest in yet more transit passes (glares at Belgium and France).

However, the vaunted European train system turned out to be a massive disappointment. I know I’m kinda old, but I remember when the dream was “get a Eurail pass and back pack around Europe for your gap year”. My parents had good things to say about the trains. The trains are 2-3x the cost of a bus in most places there. I expected the trains to be GOOD. It was not true.

I hopped on my train back to Den Haag thinking I’d had a wonderful if over-budget day and then about halfway back the train just stopped.

There was a problem with some other train stuck on the tracks (I heard because of the heat) and we sat there for about 90 minutes. The main problem with this is that I only had a small bottle of water, enough for the anticipated one hour journey but not longer after a long day in extreme heat (it was averaging 35-37C that week), and several alcohol drinks (wine with the cheese tasting, Bols distillery tour, and beer with dinner!). I even thought about buying a larger bottle in the train station and thought “no I’m ok, it’s not far.” FML.

There was a toilet in the train but no potable water. I tried to distract myself with Netflix, but I was getting insanely thirsty. We finally moved backwards to Harlem and I was told to ride to Leiden and transfer there to another train. My ticket would cover all my transfers to get me back to Den Haag, but nothing would make up for the extra hours added to what should have been a short and direct trip. At least I got to watch a beautiful sunset from the unmoving train?

When we got to Harlem, my first priority was water and I even willing to buy some but by 10:30 at night, most places weren’t open (Europe closes at 8pm) and the one I went to wanted 2€ for a tiny bottle!!! I pulled up my reusable and asked about tap water. It’s safe to drink from the tap in Europe. The sales clerk looked at me like I had suggested eating his grandmother and said “it’s not free” with the most contempt I have ever heard in regards to being asked for water.


A Little Rant About Water

Ok, a business pays fees to have water, but there is no way customers are going to drink a tenth of what you use operating a food stand. Washing a single load of dishes is more water than all your customers could drink if you gave them each a cup. Water is basically free in a drinking capacity, and even if you wanted to charge me for using your tap water, 20-30¢ would way more than cover my water bottle and not be actual extortion. In a record setting heat wave. While the whole country is having train delays.

I know I was raised in the US where the first thing a waitress gives you is water and it’s bottomless and always free, but I’ve traveled a lot and never encountered such water stinginess as exists in Europe. I’ve also lived in places where the tap water is not safe and never had trouble buying drinking water at very reasonable prices, and many businesses still give away clean drinking water and public water fountains are available in parks and public spaces.

I thought France was stingy with the water but at least you could get it if you asked and in France and Belgium I was able to find some public drinking water (the photo above is a public drinking fountain in Paris). The rest of the time I filled my bottle in bathroom sinks… the bathrooms are very clean because there are no free bathrooms.

I just don’t understand the water hoarding going on here. I don’t think it would be hard to install cheap water stations like the paid public toilets to let people refill their own bottles and reduce plastic waste. If you must make people pay for water then keep it affordable. Besides, free water in tourist areas makes people stay longer. In the end the EU is calling for clean drinking water to be a human right, but F.U. if you’re travelling in a heat wave and get stuck when the infrastructure breaks!

End Rant.


Hamburg,  Germany:

I had been using Flix Bus to get between my main cities up to this point, and it’s about as advertised. It’s a cheap bus. There is usually a bathroom, and sometimes WiFi. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s ok. Additionally, it’s often less than half the cost of the trains. When it came to getting in and out of Germany, however, the costs were suddenly inverted and the train became the cheaper option by half. Germany + trains? That has to be efficient and on time right? Oh, stereotypes, you fail me again. The trains are expensive, overcrowded and often late. Take a bus.

The train ride on DB Bahn from Den Haag was long. It took three trains and I always had to be aware of my stop because there are lots and no one will tell you where to get off. There is no WiFi on the trains in Germany. And outside the main cities I didn’t get good reception either. There was some air-con on the trains but only between stops, so it would get hot again while people got on and off. By the time I got to Hamburg 7.5 hours later I was soaked in sweat and tired. 

The good news is HVV (the transit authority in Hamburg) is great! Although the website is total gibberish, I went to their office in the station as soon as my train arrived, and the kind woman behind the counter helped me figure out what zones the places I wanted to go were in and helped me to save money on the week long transit pass. It was a tremendous relief to have unlimited transit and not have to worry about tapping in and out and possibly running out of credit due to a computer error!

Related image

In fact, there’s no RF readers or tapping in and out at all. The HVV transit pass is just piece of paper in a plastic sleeve that you can show to the bus driver or ticket checker and it’s all good. 

However! The one time I went outside my pass’s zone, I did have to buy a single use ticket. It was supposed to be cheaper this way… it turned out to be a royal pain. I still don’t know the correct way to buy a single use ticket across multiple zones. I thought I got the correct multi zone pass to head out to Blankenese, I got on the first leg ok, but the bus driver at Blankenese refused to let me on, saying I had purchased the ticket in the wrong zone. I don’t know if he was just being a jerk or what, because otherwise it seems I’d have to buy one ticket to get from downtown to Blankenese and then ANOTHER to get around Blankenese. I ended up walking to the beach.

On the way back from Blankenese, I decided to take the ferry, which was an excellent choice. It’s recommended to use the public transit ferry as a cheap tour of the Hamburg harbor and they’re not wrong. At 10.80€, it was certainly more expensive than using land transit, but much cheaper than a cruise up the Elbe with all the same wonderful views.

Leaving Germany, the last train

The original train I booked with DB Bahn was a single train from Hamburg to Copenhagen on Saturday, but the heat wave in Germany was KILLING ME, so I changed to a Friday ticket instead and left a day early. The new train route had two transfers, each giving me less than 10 minutes to change trains. A situation I would have thought could only be offered if the trains were reasonably on time. Silly me!

My first train was 10 minutes late in arriving, but that was ok because my second train was 15 minutes late departing, so I did at least get on it. However, so did EVERYONE ELSE. I’ve seen less crowded trains in China. Oh, and the platform wasn’t clearly marked so, even though I was standing under the sign for my train, my train actually pulled up at a totally different part of the platform and we only realized it when the hordes of people started running past us to get to it.

Hamburg-railway-station hg

The first several cars were so full that I couldn’t even get in the door. I mean, seats all full, aisles all full, stairs all full, entryway all full, full. I finally found one car I could squeeze into and found myself standing on the stairs (with all my luggage) compressed by bodies. There was an option to buy a reserved seat on the website, but I thought it was just for if you wanted to be sure you and your group had seats together or if you wanted to be sure to get one of the ones with tables. I didn’t realize they oversold the trains by so much that it was the equivalent of the Beijing subway. If you find yourself forced to take a train in Europe, pay the extra 4$ to get a reserved seat or else be prepared to stand.

As the tiny stops went by, and people got on and off, I was shuffled off the stairs and into an actual compartment where a very kind man getting off at the next stop gave me his seat and I was able to rest at last. By about halfway, most of the standing people were gone or seated, but it was still ridiculous.

That train was, of course, also late to my second connection, and I missed my connecting train altogether. The conductor gave us instructions on where to find connecting trains to various destinations and I stepped out onto the platform to wait for the last train of the day. It was going to be about 20 minutes later than my first scheduled train, but I didn’t think that was too bad.

I met a young American lady, just graduated from college and off for her summer in Europe with her Eurail Pass and we got to chatting in the station. When we boarded the next train it seemed that too would be standing room only, and two bicycles blocked off 4 folding seats entirely.  Luckily, as the train filled up, and started moving, a kind lady pointed out that there were two empty seats after all and we rushed over to grab them gratefully.


Copenhagen, Denmark:

The train took 90 minutes longer to arrive than the one I was supposed to be on, and instead of arriving in Copenhagen around 10pm, it was almost midnight. I expected the train to let us out into a train station where I could find shops, an ATM, and ticket machines for the public transit system. Instead, the train let us off basically on the street. I had no idea which building was likely to contain the train station/atm/ticket machine so I began to cast about for any ticket machine at all.

Image result for Rejsekort

I found one at the bus stop but as far as I could tell, the only option I could do with a credit card was to buy the Rejsekort transit card. For this you must pay for the card (80kr), then pay a minimum of 100 danish krone as a balance. So it cost me about 24 euro to get a transit card. But it was midnight and I was exhausted so I just bought it and got on the bus. Being extra sure to tap out as I exited and see the fare, I was pleased to note that even the fairly long journey out to the diplomatic quarter was about 12 kr and figured I’d be able to use that 100kr for a while yet (foreshadowing!)

The Rejsekort transit card worked similarly to the Netherlands OV Card in that each trip required a tap in and out and money was deducted from the card. However! There are two types of cards, registered and unregistered. Guess what? Of course since I bought mine from a machine at midnight it was unregistered which meant I had to maintain a minimum balance of 70kr in order to USE the card. Please remember that the trip between our Airbnb and the main train terminal is only 12kr, so that’s a little more than 5 trips in and out of town that I have to load up and NEVER USE. I was not amused.


Gothenburg, Sweden:

The local transit company here is Västtrafik. The transit in Gothenburg is good, but Google Maps has the wrong names for almost everything, so it says “get on the 10 going to abc-Swedish name” but none of the bus stops match that name on the sign. You can’t just guess by which side of the street it’s on because they use bays to remove the transit from the flow of traffic (very cool idea) so the stops are all together on an island in the middle of the roads. They have stop letters, so Google could just say take the 10 from Bay A but no. I blame Google for this failure, not the city of Gothenburg. 

Most of my time in Sweden was in a rental car, but for the time I spent in Gothenburg before getting my car, I was able to use the public transit easily enough by purchasing a three day pass which included unlimited use of buses, trams, and ferries. This is especially worthwhile since the archipelago near Gothenburg are PHENOMENAL.

Driving in Sweden was great. The roads are in good condition and the signs are very easy to follow. It is likely going to rank in my top 5 all time road trips. 10/10 would do again.

Even with the car, when I was in Stockholm, I opted to leave the rental at the hotel parking lot and take the bus around the city. In a surprising turn of absolute convenience, I downloaded the transit app on my phone and used that to buy my tickets for the day. I’m sure there are longer term options, but I was happy to just get the single use tickets since I was only using it for two trips and it was drastically cheaper than paying for parking.


Olso and Nesodden, Norway:

I was only in Norway because I was flying out of Oslo. My Airbnb was on Nesodden, one of the fjords a ferry ride away from Oslo. A single trip transit ticket is only good for an hour, but would take more than that to reach my Airbnb from the bus station where I arrived. Do I really have to buy two tickets for this? Turns out… no.

I took the local bus to the ferry terminal, but the buses on the fjord considered anyone getting OFF a ferry to be transferring and did not require an additional ticket. Whew. The ferry tickets were only mildly confusing, and with minor investigative skills I was able to navigate the ticket kiosk at the ferry terminal.

Once the bus dropped me off at the stop closest to my Airbnb, I was truly worried however since it was very rural, with no signs of any ticket machines near the bus stop. I had no Norwegian cash on me and was not walking distance from anything. I tried to use the transit app for Oslo, but it refused to accept my Korean bank card OR my American credit card (which was a much bigger surprise). Unlike the ultra convenient Stockholm app, the Oslo app would only accept payment from a limited number of EU countries.

In the end, I just went to the bus stop when it was time to leave and explained my situation to the driver. Of course he had a solution, and I was able to get to the ferry terminal, then from the Oslo side of the ferry, I was able to walk to the nearest train station that would take me to the airport…. where I promptly bought the wrong ticket.

Bus Terminal in Oslo, Norway (Oslo bussterminal) tickets (billettautomater) for Ruter nettbuss Bus4You IMG 6050

I’m still not sure I completely understand what happened. I went to a ticket kiosk and bought a ticket to the airport, then followed the signs and got on the train. There is no place to have the tickets checked on the way to getting on the train. Once I left the train at the airport, our tickets were checked on the way out. The ticket checker told me I had bought the wrong ticket, and that I’d bought the city public transit ticket, but gotten onto a private company express train (not clearly marked, and don’t check tickets on the way IN?). The money I’d spent went to the city transit authority (Ruter) and there was no way for the private train company to get it. I tried to offer to fix my mistake, but it seems there’s no way to fix it on the back end and she waved me on through exhorting me to pay more attention to the trains in future.

I would never have hopped on the wrong train intentionally, but it wouldn’t hurt if they had some kind of a barrier to scan tickets on the way in?


Moscow, Russia:

Ironically, as in counter to expectations, Moscow had the best running and least expensive public transit. I was only in Moscow for 20 hours, and I got a 24 hour unlimited pass for less than the cost of a single trip ticket in any European city. The ladies at the ticket counter spoke enough English for me to easily get the one I wanted.

I had a little trouble finding my first Metro station (I should have got a SIM card so my Map would work better) but once I realized what to look for in a Metro entrance, getting around Moscow was a breeze. The stations are so well labeled and the metro maps are clear (if you know how to read a metro map). Plus, Moscow is famous for it’s beautifully decorated stations. Even when I got lost because I read the stops wrong there were helpful people to turn me around and help me find my way.

I also used the airport express train here which was crowded, but reasonably priced and running on time with no surprises. I guess there are some things communism does well?


I have come to realize that I’m a novelist, not a blogger. I think other people would have made each country a separate blog post in order to spread out the words, and get more posts out there. At 5200+ words, I gave some serious thought into dividing this post up into bite size chunks… but tbh, I’m not that thrilled to be writing about transit, and I’m mainly including it because these were hard won lessons that I hope can spare at least one other human my trials and tribulations. I also think it helps sometimes to see that the adventure life is not always one of joy and excitement, and that we must also contend with learning basic life skills over and over in each new place we visit.

Utrecht: History & Music

July 26th, about halfway through the vacation. I was suffering through an unbelievable heat wave in The Hague (Den Haag), Netherlands. I was not enjoying myself. The heat was oppressive and causing me physical illness, and the transit in the Netherlands was without question the most obnoxious of the transit systems I have experienced in my life. However, Utrecht was a happy place that I truly enjoyed and may even brave the Netherlands again to visit. Not only was the city itself cute and bohemian in a “university town” kind of way, the exhibits I went to that day made me take several steps back and re-examine some of my perceptions of human history and development.


The Underground Tour

As an American, I didn’t grow up around places like this. I am sure that there are places in the US that have 2000 years of human occupation, but sadly the original colonizers did a very good job of erasing any traces of it. Perhaps as a result, I am eagerly curious about places on earth where the stories of humans can be traced back and retold over such vast stretches of time. I also love all things underground. The DomUnder was practically begging me to come and visit.

Dom Square in Utrecht boasts 2000 years of human occupation and I decided to go on a little tour of the archaeological dig site. The first stop on the tour was below the main office (where it was blissfully cool) to get some history lessons and watch a film.

They divided us into “English” and “Dutch” language groups. The English group was less than half native speakers, and was comprised mainly of people from other EU countries with a few Asians as well, all of whom were able to follow along in English, but not in Dutch. One more example of why ELF is so important!

The English guide gave us a good timeline overview of the square, walking us through the various stages of construction from Roman frontier fortress to modern day with a series of maps, drawings and photos to help us see the evolution. Then we all huddled together and watched a very dramatic short film about the square with actors in period dress and CG reconstructions of the architecture and the dramatic and destructive storm that reshaped the town.

2000 Years of History

Starting around 50 CE (that’s AD if you’re old), the site began it’s civilized life as a Roman fortress on the outskirts of the Empire. The Rhine river was, at the time, flowing through the area and just here it became shallow enough to cross. To defend the crossing point, a fortress, or castrum, was built.

Traiectum - Wttecht - Utrecht (Atlas van Loon)

Traiectum, the name of this castellum, was built mainly of wood with a stone wall surrounding it. It was burned down during the Revolt of the Batavi in 69-70 CE. The film we watched speculated that there may have been a romance and betrayal involved in the sacking of the fort, and that it was the wife of an officer who buried the gold later found by archaeologists below the lowest layer of burned wood.

Begrenzingskaart castellum Traiectum Utrecht Domplein Within 20 years, the Romans reclaimed it, and maintained power until about 270 CE when the Franks invaded. There isn’t any substantial change to the site for another 400 years, although evidence suggests that it was not abandoned, simply that the castellum was never rebuilt and any structures were temporary. You can still see the outline of where the old walls were built in the modern streets of Utrecht by looking down for some distinctive metal plates.

Around 630, the last of the Merovingians established a small abbey using the stone walls left by the Romans to enclose the grounds.

In 720, a chap named Willibrod who is intensely famous in the Netherlands and unknown everywhere else, established the church of St. Martin which more or less still stands today. He really loved preaching out in the frontier and was not always warmly received, having been driven out violently on at least one well known occasion by pagans who were not at all interested in this new-fangled religion he was peddling. He was canonized after his death.

The Vikings came through Europe between 857-920 in a rash of Church raiding. A lot of wealth was concentrated in churches and they were often poorly defended. St. Martin did not escape. Interestingly, there’s a viking rock on display in the square today, although I’m not sure if it’s from the time of these invasions or from a later time after the Nordic countries had converted to Christianity.

Around the turn of the millennium, the church was once more destroyed, but this time by a fire. The rebuild was inspired by the Roman round arch style. Shortly after the Emperor built a palace within the walls of the old Roman castellum (yes, where the cathedral is) and there was a bit of state vs church argy-bargy over who had ultimate authority. It seems the Emperor and the Bishop wouldn’t share an entrance from their residences into the cathedral and so two separate entrance halls were built.

In 1253 there was, shock and surprise, another huge fire that destroyed nearly everything (that’s at least 3 by now). During the subsequent reconstruction, the church transformed into a proper French Gothic cathedral completed in 1267 and the famous church tower (see below for more on that) was built in the mid 1300’s.

Dom voor storm (retoucheerd)
Things go along fairly peacefully until 1647 when an enormous and devastating storm swept through the town. My subsequent research says a tornado, but the reconstructions and explanations I experienced that day in Utrecht made it seem much more like a thunder and lightning with extremely high winds kind of storm. Either way, it was so bad that the townsfolk seriously questioned what they had done to incur the wrath of God, because nothing outside the Bible even compared.

The wind (tornado or otherwise) completely destroyed the nave of the cathedral that connected the tower to the rest of the structure. The nave was not small. You can see from drawings how much of the space it took up, and in heavy stone with Gothic arches, gargoyles and other bits of stone crenelation all over the place. It was flattened. Rubble. The people of Utrecht were devastated and although the city continued to function, no one cleaned up after the storm for 150 years.

NIMH - 2011 - 0518 - Aerial photograph of Utrecht, The Netherlands - 1920 - 1940

Even when cleanup began, it was little more than clearing the rubble and a few halfhearted attempts at restoration. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that there were serious efforts to return the cathedral and tower to their former glory. The nave was never rebuilt and it is that space that is now the main square of Utrecht between the church and tower.

The Dig Site

Armed with this historical perspective, we trooped back upstairs and headed into the main square where a hole opened up to lead us down into the dig site.

Here we were given “interactive flashlights” that we could use not only to see, but also to trigger the audio tour in our headsets. I like headset audio tours much better than trying to listen to a single guide, so I admire the choice, however, this was maybe a little too interactive. We had to find these tiny little RF chips tucked in amid the displays and aim the light at them to trigger the audio file to play. The chips weren’t labeled and there was no way to know if I got them all or missed any since a single display could have 1-3 chips in it. It was a little like playing hidden picture in real life. Here you can see one nestled among some old Roman artillery.

Despite the hunt and peck games, the displays were absolutely fun. There were two more mini movies underground, including one meant to replicate the storm itself, and the rest were pieces of the actual dig sites that had been left for display.

There were walls from the original fortress. There were tools and pottery and jewelry from the Romans. There were pieces of clay tiles with cat prints in them, proving cats have been walking on wet paint, wet cement, and wet clay forever.

There were the support pillars of the cathedral, and remnants of the rubble of the catastrophe of the storm. There were even earlier dig crew’s archaeological tools that got left for a few decades. Plus the immortal remains of at least one Bishop (probably).

I could have stayed much longer mulling over the details, but as always, I was the last person trailing behind the tour group and the guides politely reminded me that the tour was over as I was taking photos of the last few displays. Returning to the surface, I had a whole new perspective of the square in which I stood, seeing now in my minds eye the layers and layers of construction and destruction that shaped it for over 2000 years. Will someone stand in Washington DC or New York city in 2000 years and marvel at the capacity for human growth, change and tenacity? I hope so.

Church, Gardens, Tower

Although I had accidentally meandered through the gardens at St. Martin’s between the bus stop and my tour start, once I finished the tour I was eager to have a closer look at both the cathedral and the tower. The tower is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, and I think the tallest building in Utrecht. It stands 112m tall and if you want to see the view from the top it’s 465 stairs (no lift). I admired it greatly… from the ground.

The cathedral is undeniably French Gothic. It could have been picked up and moved over from France. Beautiful stained glass windows, impossibly high arches, and a great deal of overly grotesque carving including gargoyles, skeletons and dead dudes.

It’s not that I’m tired of looking at cathedrals, but I did reach a point in Europe where one French Gothic cathedral began to look rather like all the rest. It’s interesting because in modern architectural design, international companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks want their stores to all look the same on the inside because they want to establish a brand and also that their customers would feel comfortable with the familiar, even in an unfamiliar city. Now, I’m not suggesting that the Catholic Church is the McDonald’s of the middle ages… no, wait, I am… And since the average human didn’t travel more than 20 miles from home their whole lives back then, the only people this was meant to appeal to would be the ruling and priestly classes, so they can go to church anywhere and it’s always the same.

The Speelklok Museum

This is a museum dedicated to self playing instruments and music machines that pre-date the gramophone and other recording devices invention and rise to musical dominance. The museum roughly covers the time from 1750-1950, but focuses mainly on the Victorian and Edwardian periods (1840-1910). It opened my eyes to the history of music and music technology in a whole new way and made me completely re-evaluate my ideas of change and progress in the modern world. I couldn’t fit it all into a single post with the rest of Utrecht. If you haven’t already read the whole story, you can follow this link.

Is That a Theremin or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

My final moments in Utrecht, I stopped into a cafe for a sandwich and a nice iced latte. The Netherlands is not so snooty as France when it comes to putting ice in coffee, and I was grateful for their lack of coffee-purity during the unrelenting heat wave. I was sitting upstairs, trying to imagine a breeze through the open window and taking notes on my phone about the thoughts swirling in my head after my visits to the Underground and the Speelkloks when suddenly I realized that the music I was hearing in the background was a Theremin.

Not everyone would know this strange instrument either by sight or by sound, but due to an odd quirk of my proclivity for learning peculiar information and my ability to involuntarily remember completely useless trivia, I recognized the sound before I even realized I was hearing it. It was as though some part of my brain whispered “theremin”, and my conscious train of thought stopped and said “what?” before registering what my ears were hearing.

I had only ever heard recordings of the theremin, but I was sure that was what I was hearing and as soon as I realized the sound came from the street, I peered out the window. Lo and behold, on the street below was a middle aged man in a bright blue Hawaiian shirt busking for change with a theremin.

A few minutes later, he was joined by another gentleman who sat down on the ground and pulled a sitar from it’s case and began to tune it. Another instrument not readily recognizable, at least not to those who are not from South Asia. I first learned about it from the Beatles of course, since they became entranced by it’s sound after visiting India. It is also a unique and (outside India) fairly obscure instrument.

So there I am, staring down at two middle aged hipsters with the most unlikely instrumental duet I have ever heard of, and they’re good. Not like philharmonic good, but the theremin is a HARD instrument and I don’t really think the sitar is a piece of cake, so “good” is a major accomplishment and thousands of hours of practice. And there they are, on the street, playing for coins. Of course I contributed to the growing pile of money in the sitar case (pay your artists!), and if you like what you hear, I even made sure to get the band name so you can support them yourself. They are called Guau! (pronounced “wow”) and they are from Spain. You can get the album here.


For those of you playing the home game, I’m finally finished with final exams and the complex grading math that is the end of semester excel spreadsheet. I’m stuck in Korea until January 9th, when I’ll be embarking on another long trek. I’ve been so busy with work (and art) that the blog has been very slow, so I’m going to do my best to churn out a double handful of posts to leave you with before the next big adventure begins. Hope you enjoyed Utrecht, and as always, thanks for reading. Happy Holidays and Merry New Year!

The Ruins in Ghent

Although I only stayed overnight in a handful of cities last summer, I often made day trips to nearby smaller, quainter European towns along the way. While travelling in Belgium, everyone says “go to Bruges, go to Bruges” and I thought about it, but that damn heat wave… Instead, I went to a similar quaint, canal-ridden, castle-bearing, sleepy little sidewalk-cafe-having town called Ghent. There I had one of the most stunning photographic opportunities and most memorable experiences of the whole trip.


I prioritized Ghent over Bruges for my small town detour for one main reason: the ruins of the Abbey of Sint Bavo. As I learn more about the history and development of churches and cathedrals in Europe, I’ve come to realize that there are not that many styles. About 7 (I’m not counting Revival and Modern, fite me). And of those 7, I’d say that 3 are the most common and distinct in the places I visited: Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque. They’re stunning! High arches and flying buttresses, lots of fiddly bits on the architecture and beautiful decorations. However, churches within the same style are not overly unique unless you are an architectural scholar. I have now seen nearly a dozen Gothic style cathedrals, and I would be hard pressed to tell them apart without other landmarks.

Am I jaded? I don’t think so, because I do still think they’re stunning, I just don’t feel the need to prioritize another Gothic or Romanesque cathedral. I’ll go and admire one if I’m going to be in the neighborhood, but I don’t put it on my “to-do” list anymore. I might still go see a few more Baroque ones before I’m tired of that style, and I’m quite looking forward to seeing more Byzantine. What I do love is finding the cathedrals (or other historical landmarks) that are unique in some way, that bear the mark of history, of a life lived.

The Abbey of St. Bavo promised to be just that. Ruins left unrestored yet maintained, and only open to the public a few hours a week to prevent them from being damaged further. I was fascinated and determined to go. I found the opening hours and even emailed the caretakers to be sure I didn’t need a reservation, and then set about making sure I would be in Ghent on a day I could go inside.

This turned out to be a Sunday, which meant Ghent was even sleepier than normal. I’ve been living in Asia so long that I forgot about Sunday as an off day in the West. Although, to be perfectly honest, I think that western Europe closes down even more than America on Sundays. Live and learn.

I looked into transit options (oh how I gnash my teeth at the transit of EU countries, but that’s another post) and found a “hop on hop off” boat! I’ve done hop on hop off buses before, but this would combine my desire to take a canal tour with my need to get around town. For the moment, lets just skip the challenges involved with getting from my Airbnb in Brussels to the main boat jetty in Ghent. Wave your magic wand, and there we are. The last bus of the series let me off directly in front of Gravensteen Castle where my day of “quaint European town” began.

Gravensteen Castle

I studied the boat tour schedule. It only had 6 stops and it was an hour between boats so I wanted to be sure I knew where to go and when to be back to get on for the next leg of my journey. I wanted to start at the castle, hoping to explore it before the boat even started running that morning. For those of you who imagine European castles as these lonely stone fortresses in the middle of rolling green hills and woodland, let me disillusion you. The Lord’s Castle was the center of town. Back in the feudal days, serfs worked the land around a castle, but the markets would be held within the castle’s courtyard. Also during times of war or bad weather, people would move in bringing families and livestock with them to be safe behind the walls while Vikings or whoever attacked.

In some cases, those castles and farms were left empty for long enough that you get the Disney picturesque castle in the middle of nature. For many places, the castle continued to function as the center of town as the town got bigger and bigger around it, eventually turning into a modern city. In Ghent, it’s a giant fuck off castle in the middle of everything. You can’t actually get far enough away for even a proper photo because it’s so surrounded by traffic and other buildings. It dramatically changes the atmosphere of the public square to have a giant castle overseeing the open air restaurants and sidewalk cafes, though.

Canal Boat Bus

I checked into the boat bus and grabbed some coffee. I also topped up my water bottle at a decorative public drinking fountain. I saw these in several places during the summer. They look like a small artistic fountain, similar to what you might put in your back garden at home if you’re feeling fancy, but they dispense potable water (they have signs, don’t drink out of fountains without signs). Additionally, there is usually a little bowl at the bottom so dogs out for a walk can get a drink, too. It’s a wonderful way to provide a public service of free drinking water (not common enough in Europe if you ask me) while still beautifying the park or public street.

The canals in Ghent are truly beautiful and the hop on/off tour goes father through the canal infrastructure than than most of the other boat tours on offer. Our driver was young and friendly and spoke English well. Perhaps because it was Sunday there were not many other tourists, so we chatted about Game of Thrones and Harry Potter as well as the city itself.

I skipped several of the stops because I was still worn out from Paris and the heat wave, but I chose 3 to get off and have a look around. My sightseeing was somewhat hindered by the massive stages being constructed all along the main street and public squares. My guide informed me that the following week would host a huge festival in town. I’m not actually sad I missed it, since I never had enough energy that trip for crowds, so it worked out for the best.

Saints, Dragons and Devils!

I visited St. Peter’s cathedral, which was very predictable and yet still pretty. There was a woman with two children sitting just inside the door and begging. She was not the first begging immigrant/refugee I saw during my travels by any means. I tried to give when I could, although I still struggle with giving money. I’ve read a number of ethics debates about this topic and still can’t decide, so I gave them the food I had in my bag that I’d been planning to eat for lunch.  

Having given away my picnic, I went in search of another snack, but nearly everything in Ghent was closed on Sunday afternoon.  I was attracted by a nearby sign advertising waffles, waffles I never found. Instead, I ran into an art installation of dragon skeletons which was far more interesting. While I was taking photos, someone came by and asked me if they were real and almost didn’t believe me when I said “no, they’re dragons”, until he read the small informative sign. They were part of a display for a children’s museum. 

 

Continuing through the inner courtyard, I emerged behind the cathedral at the abbey where I found the orchards and vineyards and a less obscured view of the buildings.

From the boat I got a good view of the castle of Gerald the Devil. I was initially disappointed that I didn’t get to go inside, but it turns out that nowadays the building is not actually interesting on the inside. Gerald himself was nicknamed “the devil” (Duivelsteen in Belgian) because of his dark complexion and hair color. He didn’t do anything remotely devilish to earn the moniker. Additionally, while the building has an interesting history ranging from a meeting place for knights to an insane asylum, it was most recently used to house the national archives. According to Wikipedia, it’s not even good at doing that, and has been on the market since 2010. Cool name, though.

Lunch Stop, the Soda that Yodels

I got off the boat again at the stop nearest St Bavo’s and immediately set about finding lunch. This was a bit extra challenging since I was also suffering from mobile data issues that day (another post is forthcoming). I can usually get Google Maps to work just on GPS, you can’t plan a route, but you can usually see where you are but suddenly I had no map at all! No where in my plan did I account for this. You can say what you like about guidebooks or paper maps, but suddenly having my GPS not work is no different than loosing your map or guide book unexpectedly.

I had given away my picnic lunch already, and I should have just gone into a Carrefour to replace it for a similarly low cost meal, but I was freaking out about my map, since I needed it to find St. Bavo’s, and I really wanted to sit somewhere cool and comfortable after so much walking in the hot sun.

I found a burger place called Jack’s. I splurged on the set and got fries and a drink and tried a drink I’ve never heard of before. It was described as “an herbal drink” and the best way I can describe it is as an herbal infused sparkling lemonade. I have since researched the drink Almdudler and learned that it is the national soft drink of Austria, that it is named after yodeling in the alpine pasture, and that it no more has a description of it’s flavor than Dr. Pepper. Seriously, try and explain what that tastes like to someone who’s never had it. Anyway, I liked it more than Dr. Pepper.

The burger and fries were huge and the cashier gave me some extra sauce because I couldn’t make up my mind about the flavor. I did start learning to love mayo on fries while in Belgium, but I think that’s because their mayo was so much better than Hellman’s. It took me a long time to finish eating, and I wrapped half the fries up for later.

     

I drastically overspent on lunch, since a good deli sandwich and a drink can be had from any grocery store around for close to 5€. It’s another lesson in planning. I did get to use the WiFi and the restroom, which are otherwise pay-to-use in most public places in Europe. (oh how I missed the free public restrooms in every subway station in Korea)

Sint Bavo’s Abbey

My map came back to life in the restaurant’s WiFi and I was able to plot the route from Jack’s to St. Bavo’s before leaving.  When I crossed the last bridge (canal towns have a lot of bridges), I could see what I was pretty sure was the right place but no visible way in. It looked to be completely surrounded by a fence. I walked clear around the perimeter in search of the entrance. Tragically, I went the wrong way and went nearly all the way around before finding it. On the way out later, it was obvious that if I’d headed straight to the square white building, I would have found the gap in the fence right away. You know, in case you end up going some day.

At first I was surrounded by a maze of tall rectangular trees. Completely befuddled I took a few pictures in hope of solving the mystery later (spoilers, I did). In many of my travels, I don’t worry too much if I don’t know what something is at the moment I encounter it. I just try to take enough reference pictures amid my artistic ones to do more research later. Research is how I make the holiday last longer. I visited this abbey in July, and here it is the end of November while I do the last of my research about it.

The ruins themselves were everything I hoped and more. Inside the walls of the Abbey was a rambling network of crumbling walls and once-rooms bring reclaimed by nature. I forgot my physical discomfort almost at once and began to take photo after photo, pausing between sets to admire the details of centuries old carvings and stonework.

I walked through courtyards and down hallways and found spiders and snails and bumble bees in the flowers, and the wild berries. I found where stone carvings had fallen from walls or been pried from floors and were laid side by side on display. There were beautiful corridors with arched ceilings, rooms that had lost their ceilings and now we’re indistinguishable from courtyards.

There was a Roman style bath area with a secret winding staircase up the short tower where the remains of an art installation collected dust. Someone had done a project through social media about communication online and all the responses were published in newspaper form. Perhaps once they were there for visitors to take away, but the layers of dust and cobwebs told me it had been a while since anyone had looked at them. 

About halfway around the space, I met up with a table of volunteers who had informative booklets in many languages. One helpful lady explained a little about the places I’d seen and then showed on the map where I would go from there. I thanked her very much and took the booklet off to a bench in the shade to look through it and to take pictures of the articles for reference.

I didn’t read the whole thing at the time but I did discover the purpose of the tree maze out front was to outline walls of the original church, now long gone. While reading the history of the abbey, I was approached by a black cat who very desperately wanted to be friends. Sadly I’m allergic and had to decline the offer for pets, but I took pictures instead.

When I finished skimming and recording the brochure information, I headed up a far less secret stairwell and went inside a space that had retained all its walls and ceiling. I was greeted by a huge and looming partial crucifix. The cross and arms were gone, leaving only the faded wooden head and body of the suffering Jesus gazing down the stairs at those who entered.

Monastic chanting was piped through a hidden sound system, giving an appropriately medieval and gloomy air to the dark and gutted room. The walls were lined with rescued stone carvings of saints and martyrs, but rather than being the main display, they served as the walls upon which a modern photography exhibit was mounted. It was a strange contrast to see the brightly colored photos against the dark and crumbling remains of the abbey’s old artwork, all topped off with the eerie and Gothic music.

Moving back into the sunlight I continued to be awed by the variety of spaces. Wild grapes growing along one wall, pieces of statues littering the grass or reassembled in part and mounted wherever space allowed. I wandered until my feet couldn’t take it, then I sat until I could walk again. Even with many other visitors it was overwhelmingly peaceful and stunningly beautiful. Only when I felt like I’d explored every possible inch did I out to catch the last boat back to the town center and my train back to Brussels.

I took so many beautiful pictures that afternoon, please enjoy the video slideshow.

A Short History Even Shorter

The binder I was given had a map of the grounds, and 8 typed pages of information. About half of that was a detailed description of the rooms, including architectural style, building materials, and original use. I am not an architect, I couldn’t actually follow most of this part without my eyes glazing over. The second part was more interesting to me, since it encompassed a brief history of the abbey. I am not going to try to replicate the same level of detail here. If you REALLY need to know, comment, and I’ll post the photos of the pages I took, but for everyone else, here’s the very short ‘short history’.

7th century: Missionaries showed up to convert people. They built an abbey with the backing of the Merovingians. A rich nobleman became a monk and went off to live as a hermit, taking the name Bavo. After his death, his remains were transferred to the abbey which subsequently bears his name.

9th century: Vikings! Not yet converted Nordic types were still raiding the land, and loved to raid churches cause people donated like mad, and also decorated with lots of silver, gold and other valuable things. Way to put your money far away from the soldiers, guys. Vikings burned it all down. Twice.

10-12th century: The Roman Empire finds Ghent is on it’s side of the river and offers Imperial protection at last (meanwhile poor St. Peters which I visited earlier that day was left on the French side!) Under the shining eye of Rome, the abbey was not only safe, but experienced a period of growth, getting lots of beautiful Romanesque architecture which makes up the majority of the stone ruins seen today.

16th century: Charles V is rude. He pulled off a bunch of shenanigans to embarrass and shame the locals of Ghent, culminating in the ordered destruction of the abbey, and the use of it’s building materials to create a military citadel. The citadel was completed in 1545, but was destroyed in 1577 by the Calvinists, then rebuilt again in 1584 by the Spanish. It underwent nearly constant de- and re-construction until it was finally abolished in the mid 19th century.

19th-20th century: Conservationists had to fight against industrialists for the space. There’s a whole sordid affair over the meat merchants’ iron grip on Ghent during the 19th century and they managed to claim the abbey land for an abattoir at the height of their power. After much cajoling by conservationists, the abbey ruins were given to the city of Ghent on the condition a museum was established on the site in 1887. In 1936 the ruins were made a historical monument by Royal Decree; however, the abattoir remained in operation until 1989.

Now: The Neighbors of the Abbey formed in 2007 as a volunteer group to upkeep the museum and to organize visits for tour groups and solo travelers like myself.