Northern Ireland: Game of Thrones

Regardless of your feelings about the series finale, one cannot argue that Game of Thrones failed to leave a lasting mark on the collective TV viewing audience around the world. Even if you are not a Game of Thrones fan, I think you can still enjoy the photos and descriptions here since I’m telling my story, not JRR Martin’s. I enjoyed the books a lot (wish he’d finish!) and I like most of the TV show as well, even many parts that diverged greatly from the books. However, this is not a blog about a TV show, it is about Ireland: the museum exhibit in Belfast, and the outdoor landmarks which would are enjoyable on their own, minus the CGI and regardless of their attachment to the show.


Game of Thrones Touring Exhibition: Belfast

At the time I was in Ireland, the GoT Touring Exhibition was in the TEC in Belfast. I understand that it was in Belfast from April – September of 2019. I was told that there will be some part of the exhibit which will permanently stay in Belfast due to it size, but as I write this, there’s zero information on the TEC website because it’s all closed due to Covid-19. Additionally, the exhibition’s tour schedule is currently suspended for the same reason. I’d love to be able to tell you where to go to see it, but I can’t.

Warning: there are SPOILERS. If for some reason you are living under a rock and haven’t seen season 8 (or already had it spoiled for you) and still want to experience that… uh, experience, then maybe just look at the pictures or skip to the outdoor part of the GoT sightseeing.

I booked tickets well in advance because I was warned it might be sold out and we were on a bit of a schedule. There’s plenty of parking at the TEC and a place to get a cup of coffee and a snack in the lobby. It was such a relief to have an indoor activity on a rainy day. I got there before opening because I wanted to be in the door before the crowds arrived. There weren’t actually that many people there, but I’m still glad I went early because it was filling up by the time we left about 3 hours later.

The exhibit hall was enormous. It was divided into smaller rooms by theme and there was a suggested path to follow. There was a plethora of information about every item on display as well as knowledgeable staff everywhere, most of whom had worked on the show when it was being filmed and had personal on set anecdotes to share about the actors or scenes. Generally all of them were happy to have had the experience which made it nice to have the staff share fandom and enthusiasm.

Photos were allowed everywhere, but flash photography was forbidden and the lighting was very low, so most of my photos did not turn out terribly well, I’m afraid. Honestly, you can see wide shots of the costumes and props in the show, so the impressive part of the exhibit is being able to look at the close up details involved in the dresses, jewelry, weapons and other props that are never seen on screen, or shown for only fractions of a second. There are so many more things in the exhibit than I can show here, in part because no one wants to see that many photos and the rest because so many of my photos turned out blurry or dark or both.


The display starts by introducing the houses of Westeros and their relationships and fealty with a dazzling array of flowcharts accompanied by a variety of common or popular character costumes for the main houses.


It moves next into an area that replicates the Stark family crypt at Winterfell. I was told by the guide for this portion that these statues would not be moving on with the exhibition tour since they were too large and fragile. The room was dark and the statues lit moodily as though by torch light. It was a fun effect to walk through, but a frustrating one to photograph.


The third module gets into the further houses such as those of Dorne and the Iron Islands as well as Stannis Baratheon’s unholy union with Melisandre.

The fourth section is arguably the best. It’s a room full of dragon skulls, the very same ones Tyrion finds while under the palace in Kings Landing that belonged to the Targaryans of days past. I have rarely been so sad about low lighting, but it did make the skulls feel a little creepy and alive, and lived experience is always better than a photo. The skulls are seriously dinosaur sized. The smallest one could probably bite me in half, and the largest could swallow me whole. Standing up. Without opening it’s jaw all the way. So incredibly cool.


Following the dragon skulls were all things Mother of Dragons. Daenerys’ most iconic costumes and jewelry as well as models of the dragon eggs and baby dragons.


There’s an interactive display of the temple of the Faceless Men. Arya trained there, learning deep ancient secrets of how to assassinate people and then NEVER USED THEM. *sigh The display is still cool. You can pose for a photo and have your face digitally added to the wall of faces.


Next up is the Wall where John Snow joins the Night Watch to protect the realms against the coming of the Night King and his horde of walking dead that kill all the Dothraki and then… shatter?… when Arya stabs him, not using her Girl Has No Name skills in any way… ugh. Look at the shiny costumes!


The final display is the Iron Throne in King’s Landing with some of the later season costumes arrayed around it. In addition to all the beautiful set pieces and costumes, there are several interactive stations where you can pose with Arya’s sword Needle, John’s sword Longclaw, the Wall (a cute trick with mirrors to make it look like you’re holding on to a rope for dear life), and the Iron Throne itself. You can walk both forward and backward through the display, so I was able to double back and have a closer look at a few things. All in all, a lovely experience combining museum quality displays and fantastical world building.


On the way out, one of the staff told us to keep an eye out in the parking lot for the King’s Landing set. He implied that one day it might be open to the public as part of a permanent exhibit, but not yet. I tried to find any information about it online, but again, since tourism is closed, there’s no telling if or when the full size set that was used to film the burning of King’s Landing in season 8 will ever be a public attraction or not.
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The Film Locations

A large number of the stunning landscapes of the show are part of Northern Ireland. There are scads of websites dedicated to helping people find and enjoy GoT filming locations. Many of the locations are empty fields where this or that battle was filmed, while others had significant CGI added in post production. There are specialized tours where you can play dress up and act out scenes from the show. There’s even a very expensive opportunity to spend some time with the actual animals who played the Stark children’s direwolves.

*The photos that follow are a mix of screenshots from Game of Thrones and my own photos of the locations I visited for comparison and contrast.*

Dark Hedges

This was probably the shortest stop and yet the most beautiful. The Dark Hedges were a popular site in Northern Ireland even before the show. They also have the honor of being one of the only locations that was not CGI enhanced and are therefore quite recognizable as the King’s Road in seasons 1 and 2, as well as the place where Arya Stark escaped from King’s Landing.

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From the outside, the dark hedges just look like a little stand of trees in between two large fields. The short stretch of road runs through a private farm, and although the patient farmer has to put up with tourists on the public road, he also seems to have a good sense of humor about the situation. Busloads of tourists come through both on Game of Thrones themed tours and on regular tours of the area because it’s famous for more than just it’s show appearance. As a result, parking is scarce. There was supposedly a parking lot some distance away, but everyone simply parked on the side of the road that ran perpendicular to the hedges. There’s not supposed to be any cars on the hedge road itself, but of course there are always people who think the rules don’t apply to them.


It’s a short stop for most tours, so if photography is your goal, you might want to go on your own. I only spent about 30 minutes there and took a lot of photos which I was eventually able to parlay into a version that makes it look totally empty! Yay, photoshop? Otherwise, it’s very easy to see how true to life this set is between the show and the reality.

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Downhill Demesne & Mussenden Temple

Here is the filming location of Dragonstone in Season 2. Downhill Strand is the place where the seven gods of Westeros were sacrificed by Lady Melisandre. Dragonstone was the ancestral home of House Targaryen and current stronghold of the Stannis Baratheon. The scene in question is filmed at night on the beach below, so there’s no real way to see it in the show. Nonetheless, it seems that the tourism board has installed statues of the seven on the beach for eager fans to see. I didn’t make it down to the beach, but rather came through the Downhill Demesne gardens and grounds. If you want to see the beach, I think the A2 road goes there pretty directly.

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We entered via Bishop’s Gate and enjoyed the gardens with a variety of flowering bushes and trees, water features and stonework. Following the trail, we came upon an open area where the ruins of the old manor stood. Finally, walking all the way to the cliff edge, I found Mussenden Temple. Contrary to it’s name, it was never a temple, merely modeled after one. It was in fact a library. It is possible to enter the “temple” during the day, but by the time we arrived it was locked up for the night.

Dunluce (again)

I did not actually realize it at the time, since it didn’t show up on my initial searches for GoT locations, but Dunluce Castle was also Pyke Castle of House Grayjoy on the Iron Islands. I had to look it up and it turns out this is one of the locations that was extreme CGI. I would say more that Dunluce was the inspiration rather than the location, but hey, you gotta start somewhere. I wrote more about Dunluce in my description of the Causeway Route.

Castle Ward

This was one of the places I was most looking forward to seeing, and turned into the greatest disappointment. It’s advertised as “the real life Winterfell” and while it was technically the place where Winterfell was filmed… CGI.

In all fairness, one of the reasons I did not enjoy the stop was that we were experiencing some of the hardest and most vicious rain of the entire trip that day. Ireland kind of always rains. For some reason, I thought that was like Seattle rain which is really just heavy mist and no native Seattlite owns an umbrella (at least not for rain). I had a travel umbrella and I had rain booties to keep my shoes dry and I thought that would be enough. Mostly it was. There was one terrible soaking I got while on a ferry, but other than that, I’d been mostly dry or at least only merely damp.

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Not so this day. The rain was opaque. It was as though the sky was trying to be the sea. In addition, the signage for where to go and park in the sprawling acreage of Castle Ward is not clear. I followed the signs for Winterfell and wound up in a very small parking lot which in retrospect might have been staff parking, but we were so lost by then that I just gave up and parked anyway. (Now I know we should have parked at the Shore Parking Lot, but it was not obvious in any way when we drove in that day) It turned out to still be a long walk from the trail head to the actual “Winterfell” area, and on a beautiful day, or even a merely drizzly day it probably would have been a lovely walk through the National Trust. It’s still very pretty, but it was harder to appreciate while wet.

Another reason I think I was disappointed is that I’ve been to Hobbiton in New Zealand. There are plenty of LOTR locations you can visit there that are just unchanged landscape and like Northern Ireland, they are beautiful and worth seeing, just… not like the movies. Hobbiton, on the other hand, was purpose built (twice) for the LOTR and Hobbit movies. Although the farmer who owned the land originally didn’t want permanent structures, after seeing the huge influx of tourism money, he decided to keep them after all.

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Thus, walking around Hobbiton, you feel like you are THERE. I knew that most of the locations I visited for GoT were not altered for the show or for tourism, but Winterfell was so highly advertised as this great experience, like being in Winterfell, stepping into the show, that I imagined it would be at least a little like Hobbiton, and give me a sense of being at the Stark family home.

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When I finally arrived at “Winterfell” I felt very let down. It looked like a reconstructed historical village, the kind that kids take school field trips to see. I expect that it was meant to be a replica of the original Castle Ward. It wasn’t ugly or anything, it just wasn’t at all like Winterfell.

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There are a ton of pay to play style activities at the Winterfell center. You can take an archery class, an axe throwing class, rent a bicycle and tour the park while wearing a cape and a special GoT messenger bag that purportedly takes you to 20 different filming locations within the grounds, most of which are “this tree” or “that field”. I don’t want to diminish from anyone who enjoys this kind of experience. If that is your jam, rock on. For me, a place has to be cool for more than just being the canvas on which CGI was painted. In addition, I was traveling with an older person who simply wasn’t up for lots of hikes or bikes.

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I wanted to simply see the grounds and enjoy the castle. The thing is… it’s not really there. The closest you come is one short tower and part of a wall that kind of look like Winterfell if you squint. In the courtyard there were a dozen or so cars and a huge tent, which made getting decent photos of the type that are shown on the website nearly impossible. This is the closest angle of any building that I found to resemble the castle on the show (show: top, reality: bottom). The resemblance is there, but the feel was lacking.

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In addition to the experience selling shops, there was a small art gallery and a gift shop. I spent a long time hiding in the replica ruins of an old mill waiting for another torrent to pass long enough to walk again. The rain was so extensive that the ground was almost entirely underwater.

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It just goes to show that managing expectations is extremely important. I think I would have been able to overlook the disappointment of either the weather or the failure to be anything like Winterfell, but I wasn’t able to overcome them both and I left feeling profoundly damp in shoes and spirits.

Inch Abbey

Thankfully, that day I had one more GoT location to visit, and it was the ruins of an old abby, which it’s almost impossible for me to feel let down by. The scene is where Robb Stark’s bannermen rallied to their leader after taking victory (and Jaime Lannister prisoner) at the Battle of the Whispering Wood. While Winterfell had made the cut onto my list because of my (mistaken) belief that it would be a grand immersive experience, Inch Abbey made the list just for being old ruins.

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The first traces of a sacred building on this site go all the way back to 800 C.E., although it is thought that the monestary of Inis Cumhscraigh (as it was called at the time) was mainly earth and wood, so little of it remains today. The beautiful stonework remains that makes this site stand out were not built until 1180-88. It remained an active catholic monastery until 1542 when Henry the Eighth left the Catholic church because he wanted a divorce and then forced everyone under his rule to become Church of England.

The rain had eased back significantly, and one of the local tour bus drivers even offered us spare ponchos as his passengers were offloading. The tour group was rather amusing, and seemed to be having an absolute blast. They were equipped with cloaks and replica swords which appeared to be blunt steel, not plastic or wood. The tour guide, like many of those working on GoT tourist sites, had been an extra on the show and enjoyed telling stories from being on set.

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They all gathered together and, at the guide’s prompting, everyone bent the knee to one lady, swords aloft and shouted “the queen in the north!”, echoing the original scene in which Robb was named such for the first time, but with a nod to the fact that Sansa (at that time) had taken up her brother’s title. I didn’t reach the group in time to catch that pose, but I did happen to get another that shows off their costumes and props. Once the group photos were over, they had a few minutes to go and take individual poses around the ruins before being herded back onto the bus.

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At one point the guide expressed a thought that had not occured to me as a fan, and I want to share that as well. I think a lot of fans were disappointed by the final battle of Winterfell because it was SO DARK (among other things, so many other things). The guide for the group that was at Inch Abbey that day had been an extra in the final battle and talked about the extreme conditions that the cast and crew worked in: not sleeping, being wet and cold all the time, running up and down over and over again until they were just physically wrecked. It was something he put a lot of work into and it was really hard for him to turn around and face the criticism online.


I still think the shows writers, producers, and cinematographers FAILED in every way for that scene, but I now I also think about all the people who didn’t have any creative control, or any idea what the final product would look like who were just excited to work on such a popular and groundbreaking show. In addition, the tragedy that is season 8 has not stopped most fans from continuing to love the series, the characters, and the world of Westeros. We complain a lot online, but I think it’s important to use fan voices to say thanks as well. So, thanks to all the cast and crew who worked their asses off and had no control over what happened in the scripting and editing process.


The group didn’t stay long, and soon we had the ruins to ourselves and I was able to tramp around with impunity, my umbrella enough to keep the now light rain off. The ruins themselves are stunning, and I think that the rain brought out the beautiful contrast of the stones and the grass that would not have been as strong on a sunny day. The stones themselves are fascinating as you can see the remnants of interior structures long since crumbled and it was exactly the kind of film location I had been hoping to see combining real life beauty with my fandom.

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Inch Abbey was the final stop on both my Game of Thrones self-tour, and the Northern Ireland portion of the road trip. We tried to go to Newgrange on the way back to Dublin, but there was a series of unfortunate events involving Germans and cars (why is it always Germans I have car problems with?) that only Lemony Snicket could possibly narrate which prevented us from doing so. I did learn that you have to go there and put your name on the wait list in person. You can’t make reservations ahead of time and you can’t go without signing up… so. This seems like an event that it might be easier to do with a tour group than on your own. Maybe next time? Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed my sojourn through Northern Ireland, and I hope you’ll continue to join me as the story takes me back into the south.

 

The World is Temporarily Closed

Hi!

Welcome to July. We’re officially halfway through 2020 and wow it has been a trip! Like, the kind where your shoe gets stuck in a crack in the pavement and you end up taking a face-plant on the sidewalk… into a pile of dog poo.

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I know that I have readers from every corner of the planet and it never ceases to amaze me. I don’t think there are too many corners of the planet who are feeling unaffected by Covid-19. The last time I wrote, I was still trying to wrap my head around the crazy new world and the terrible drama of online classes. Most people still thought it would “be over soon” and “go back to normal” and I have to say I got a lot of stink-eye for saying it might last up to 2 years.

Now, every country that isn’t America has pretty much buckled in for the long haul. We’ve done a pretty good job of getting it under control, but we all know that any return to “normal” (defined here as pre-covid life) will see an instant uptick in cases. We know masks are required and we have fashionable ones. We know that bars and nightclubs are hotbeds of infection and we either close them, limit them, track everyone who goes or all three. Everyone (again, except the US) is talking about how to live life amid the restrictions of social distancing, and while it won’t be easy, it’s doable.

If you are not in America you are very lucky, but may also be unaware of just how insane it is there. The growing case numbers, the filling ICUs, the absurd hospital bills, the stunning array of symptoms and worst of all – the huge number of inconsiderate idiots who still think it’s a) just like the flu, b) a hoax, c) only going to kill people they don’t like, so that’s ok.

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On top of the horrific handling of Covid19, there’s also still an unacceptable level of state sponsored violence. As an American expat, I’m in the unenviable position of being personally safe (thank you South Korea) while worrying about almost every person that I love and watching my entire country change into a tire fire like that moment in an optical illusion when it changes from a duck to a horse, but instead it’s changing from a first world democracy into a failed totalitarian state. It’s stressful.

I have had a LOT of emotions this year so far. On a personal level, I decided to start my reading list for dealing with trauma (PTSD/CPTSD) which is a necessary step in my healing process, but it is painful af. My future went from having a reasonable plan for my financial stability and mental well-being to being … ok, I have to admit, I’m still financially stable as long as this University keeps us foreign teachers, but there’s a pile of stuff that makes long term teaching options almost impossible without being able to pursue my PhD or, you know, move countries. I am still worried that I may end up back in a country where healthcare = bankruptcy without any real retirement plan but that’s like 20 years in the future and who knows what the world will look like then, really?

Eventually, I figured out how to cobble together lesson plans that would work in my university’s limited online platform and cried to myself every time I read an article about innovative online teaching from universities that gave the professors more freedom in how to operate. I do actually understand why the Korean universities are being restrictive. There’s some politics and some history of corruption and no one wants Covid-19 to turn into the moment universities return to that corruption, so we all have to dot our i’s and cross our t’s or… however that works in Hangul (우리의 점을 찍고 우리의 점을 넘어?)

The spring was fraught with pits of despair and peaks of anxiety. I wanted to photograph beautiful spring flowers and maybe go to the beach or write in this blog, but no. My brain was on fire and all my executive function was absorbed in the herculean tasks of teaching my classes, brushing my teeth, washing my hair, doing laundry, and feeding myself something other than ice cream and red bean buns. Thankfully, Animal Crossing doesn’t require any executive brain functionality.

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What Did I Actually Do?

Once I got a grip on the online class format, and the basics of catching critters for Blathers, I did experience some restlessness. Lucky for me, Korea calmed way down by April and it was basically safe to go out (as long as you wear a mask, wash your hands a lot, and avoid crowds).

I went to a dog cafe in Busan, hoping that some fluffy puppers would cheer me up, but the ajuma “running” the dog room wouldn’t leave anyone alone and kept winding the dogs up to bark and do tricks and pose for photos. The doggos were pretty, but the acoustics were not good for borking and we had to leave well before our time was up.

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I also made it out to the Belated Buddha’s Birthday lantern festival at Samgwangsa, which I do enjoy. It was definitely the least crowded I’ve ever seen it, even though we were there on a Saturday night. Everyone was masked and trying to stay distant. In addition, it seemed the lanterns had been raised up quite a bit to be well out of reach and provide more air circulation in the covered areas.

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My uni also decorated for the holiday even though we couldn’t have any festivals. Westerners who were sad about Easter being “cancelled” because of Covid have a slight idea what Asia felt like loosing both the Lunar New Year celebrations and Buddha’s Birthday to it.

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In the absence of the ubiquitous spring festivals celebrating cherry blossoms, lanterns, and the general end of cold weather, I was able to participate in a couple virtual movements.K-pop fans brought a lot of attention to the BLM movement and Koreans got curious. There was a small but vibrant movement to join in the global protests and I was able to give my students some Korean language info as well as participate in the Instagram rally.

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For the first time ever, Seoul Pride was cancelled not because of angry, violent churchy types but because all large public gatherings were called off. There was a big scare surrounding Covid19 spreading in Seoul in particular at some gay clubs. There are no anti-discrimination laws here (yet) so contact tracing Covid19 leading to public outing (loss of family and job probably forever) was a huge issue. Although the government is looking at anti-discrimination legislation for the first time in 14 years now, they are still terrified of the loud minority of hate-mongers who are just convinced ANY laws against ANY kind of discrimination will lead to Korea turning 100% gay. The “good” news is that at least they made very solid efforts to protect people from being outed when coming in for Covid testing and provided a Bush-era AIDS testing policy of not asking where they thought they might be exposed. Anyway, the LGBTQIA organizers made a virtual Pride parade where everyone could create an avatar and “march” online. Cute.

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I shared my partial art project in my last check in, and sometime this spring I finished it. I’m very pleased with how that came out. It is made entirely of paper and glue. Tiny, tiny bits of paper glued in layers to create “scales” and patterns. There’s not a lot of wrapping paper here, which is what I’d really like to use for this style, so I use origami paper instead which severely limits the size, color, and pattern available. I would love to start a third piece in this style, but I’m having some creators block. Suggestions welcome.

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I also got the chance to make a cheap DIY pinhole viewer for the solar eclipse. Lucky for me, the afternoon sun comes right into my window so I didn’t even have to go outside for that one. Yes, I just poked pinholes in a sheet of paper in the shape of a heart.

What About The Summer?

For a while, I held out some false hope that I might be able to do some travel this summer, maybe go to Alaska (it’s America, they can’t actually ban me) to see some glaciers and forests. Maybe get my sister to bring the kids up (family reunion!). It seemed like it might just be doable. In May, people were sort of kind of like, let’s try to be sane. But that pipe dream fell apart as we realized that Alaska was requiring 2 week quarantines even for visitors from other states.

I still tried to tell myself it might be worth it to go there or someplace like New Zealand even if I had to stay in my hotel for the first two weeks because at least I’d get to do something and not be trapped in the sweltering humid heat of Korean summer, but alas. First my uni sent out letters advising faculty not to leave Korea except for emergency reasons. Then, the Immigration office sent out letters saying that multiple re-entry was cancelled, and anyone wanting to leave and re-enter Korea would have to apply for special permission AND get a health check from a designated health center within 48 hours of returning, and if it wasn’t good enough, might be denied re-entry upon arrival.

So, here I am. I’ll be spending my summer in Korea. All of it. No travel for the traveler.

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I’m still weaving in and out of a sort of ennui based depression, but it is much better than it was in March/April/May which was punctuated by random bouts of uncontrollable sobbing, catastrophizing anxiety, and ice cream for dinner.

I’ve started an intermittent fasting plan (16:8) in an attempt to NOT stress eat anymore. I think everyone practicing social distancing is struggling with diet and exercise in conjunction with a huge lifestyle change (not going out) and a huge dose of STRESS HORMONES. I myself gained about 4 kilos since my check up last December and would like to get rid of that before it gets any worse.

I am trying to grow plants, which I never do because I often leave my apartment for weeks at a time. I named the first two plants too soon. My mint plant had a near death experience after coming home with me, but pulled through and was rugged but making it. My balsam plant was grown from seed and was being a primadonna about sun/heat/water ratios for a while. I named them Brutus and Pixie: the rugged war scarred elder and the young naive cutie pie. It seemed right at the time. I think I may have killed Brutus for good. He caught something that turned all his leaves black. I washed and treated the roots, disinfected the pot and replanted with new dirt, but it’s not looking good. Pixie is flourishing and the little pink cup sprouted a single tiny lavender seed which is giving a very commendable if miniature effort.

I’m running a D&D campaign, which is astonishing. I was an avid gamer (tabletop and LARP, not console/PC) for 20-25 years of my life, but I haven’t played anything since 2014, and I haven’t played D&D since maybe high school and I have NEVER played with the new 5e rules so I’m really hoping I don’t accidentally kill the whole party with the first boss fight. It is good to have some real human socialization, though. Since our little town is pretty much Covid-free, we are meeting in person to have game sessions. Wild.

I might check myself into a fancy hotel on the beach for a couple days, just to feel like I’m on vacation. I hear the water parks are almost empty, too. I can’t do much in Korea due to the unbelievable heat which tries to melt my skin, cook my brain, and turn my joints into overfull sausages all at once. The beaches here are usually packed solid every summer (I have never even wanted to go) and now require reservations to enter the beach (no one is really sure how that’s going to go since there aren’t fences or gates…) in an attempt to keep the social distancing alive. I still don’t want to sit on the beach, but I think I could get behind a rooftop pool with an ocean view.

I’m going to attempt to resume writing. I still have a LOT of material from my travels in 2019 since I’ve done literally nothing with my Jordan/Egypt trips, or my Spain trip, and am less than halfway through the Ireland trip stories. Plus, I still have like 2 volumes of Chinese Fairy Tales that got dropped when my life turned upside-down.

I can’t guarantee a schedule or that I won’t sometimes interject with more of my own personal 2020 life struggles, but I’m hoping that maybe some new travel stories will help me to remember there are still great things out there and help you feel a little less cabin fever while you work on that self-isolation and social distancing.

Thank you everyone! Remember to wear your mask, wash your hands, smash the patriarchy, and support Black Lives Matter!

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9 Days in Taiwan 2/2: City Scenes & Foodie Dreams

Taiwan part 2: In addition to beautiful natural scenery and a wide variety of temples, I meandered around some of the more famous urban settings such as the “old streets”, night markets, subway stations, urban parks, and street art. Winding through every Taiwanese experience is the food, unique and delicious. I often forget to eat while out doing tourist activities, but here the food IS the tourist activity, so come hungry!


City Scenes

Taipei

Shifen Old Street 十分老街
I went here as part of a day tour which also included the Geo-park, the waterfall, and the other famous old street, Jiufen. Old streets are very heavily curated quaint “old timey” feeling places that are actually tourist traps, but they’re fun tourist traps, with good food and excellent instagram photo-ops, so very worth going to. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying inauthentic-yet-fun attractions.

Shifen is famous for it’s train-tracks and the lanterns. It’s one of the only places you can send off a flying lantern, and probably the only place you can do it while standing on working railroad tracks. It’s a very small place, you won’t spend a day there, but it’s fun to walk around and see the small shops, specialty local foods, and of course, the lanterns.

Jiufen Old Street 九份老街
My views this day were severely inhibited by a very dense fog. This is advertised as the place that inspired the art of Spirited Away, but my guide told me that Miyazaki said he’s never been here. When I followed up later, what I found was this interview he gave (sorry, it is NOT in English) where he says he bases the scenes of his movies on his own surroundings in Japan, not in Taiwan.

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Jiufen does bear a striking resemblance to the city scenes in Spirited Away, but it is purely coincidence. I actually find it very sad that the Taiwanese tourism industry is promoting this untruth to attract visitors because Jiufen is amazing in it’s own right both because it is beautiful, and because of all the amazing food. People who go only because of it’s nonexistent connection to the movie come away disappointed instead of just enjoying Jiufen for what it is.

If you’re in Taipei, it’s certainly worth the visit. We took a city bus to the top of the road and walked back down to the tour bus parking lot. It’s about 200 stairs and only one way, so you won’t see different sites walking both up and down. I have a lot more to say about Jiufen in the “Foodie Dreams” section of this post below.

Taichung

Xinshe Castle 新社莊園古堡
This is a fantasy resort designed to look like a European fairy tale. It’s a little piece of Europe for those who can’t visit. When you think about it, it’s not that different from a Western country having an Oriental garden with little Tang Dynasty style buildings and pagoda gazebos. Sometimes you forget that other people are watching us while we’re watching them. I probably wouldn’t have gone on my own, but I was invited along with an ESL teacher who was also on holiday from Korea that I met in my hostel. She used to live in Taiwan and spoke quite highly of the garden and grounds. She was most excited about the swarms of fish in the pond that practically shove one another out of the water to get at the fish pellets tourists drop for them.

Most tourists go there to take pictures. Asian cultures really enjoy posing in photos, so much that there are often lines to stand next to famous landmarks or views. People will respect the line, but if you only want a photo of the view with no people it can be a real challenge. Since it was winter, there weren’t too many people in the park and I got a lot of photos, but I still had to wait strategically to get the best views free from posers.

Houli Forest Park 后里森林園區-天上掉下了一顆種子
After Xinshe we went to a flower garden which was less flowers and more interesting visuals including a really immersive video of pollen and a giant globe light show. I’m still not sure we went to the “right” place, because while everything on the internet says “go to the Houli Flower Farm”, what they actually mean (and show pictures of) is the Zhongshe Flower Market, which is in Houli, and probably very pretty, but reported as very small.

I on the other hand ended up in the Houli Forest Park which doesn’t turn up if you search in English (you can copy paste my Chinese above, or use the link). We had to park a ways out and there were shuttle buses into the park. If you take transit to the Houli Station, it’s less than 1km to walk from the station to the park.

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The Houli Forest Park is gigantic with displays of flowers and garden styles from around the world. It’s got a bit of United Nations through plants thing going on. There weren’t too many flowers because it was winter, but the garden displays were still fun and interesting. After dark, the large sphere puts on a lights and music show that is visually hypnotizing.

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Kaohsiung

Dome of Light 光之穹頂 at Formosa Boulevard Station 美麗島站
This is the world’s largest public art installation made from individual pieces of colored glass. It also just happens to be in a subway station in Kaohsiung. There’s no reason not to see this stunning work of art if you are in the city.

Pier2 Art Center 駁二藝術特區
I heard about the amazing street art of Pier2 and set aside a full afternoon to visit. I was pretty disappointed at first because, although I found what was clearly a very artsy area, it was much more artist work space than art on display. I enjoyed everything I saw, but I couldn’t understand where all the photos on Google Image search of Pier2 were hiding.

Only after a bubble tea break did I finally figure it out! All the signs point you to the right (if you’re facing the water). However, if you go left, away from all the “pier 2” signs and across the street and around the corner– there are all the warehouses filled with cute artist shops and restaurants!! Along with more murals, crazy street art, and giant art installations. The local street signs and maps of the area were very confusing, but it was worth it in the end.

Food

Before going to Taiwan, I asked people what they recommended I eat. I scoured the internet for recommendations of “must try” foods, and while I did find things that people ate, there wasn’t any kind of definitive “Taiwanese Food” list. Now that I’ve been, I realize that this is because you can go anywhere and eat anything and it’s going to be awesome. There are just too many wonderful variations and local/seasonal limited editions that it’s impossible to compose a full list, but if you are looking for some definitive items: bubble tea (boba), pineapple cake, beef noodles, pork rice, and dumplings. Here’s what I ate, and I can recommend all of it, but if you can’t find it, don’t worry because you can’t miss out on delicious dishes as long as you eat at any non-franchise place.

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Theif Chen Tea House 大盜陳茶飲 (the name is only in Chinese on Google Maps)
On the day I got my SIM card, I was just wandering around the neighborhood, and happened to spot a sign in the window for smoked oolong rose milk tea. Milk tea and boba (bubble tea) are absolute must haves in Taiwan, and there are lots of chances. The flavors are the fun part. This was made with smoked oolong and rose syrup and it was entirely dreamy! Smoky and dark, floral and sweet, creamy and cold.

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Lin’s Wagashi Confectionery 滋養製菓
Just down the street I spotted a confectionery shop with  fresh strawberry red bean rice cake. A traditional mochi style rice cake with sweet red bean paste, a combination I already love, with the added bonus of a fresh ripe strawberry. Heaven!

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Food Stalls near Taipei Station: not on a map
There are things like semi-permanent food trucks, but not all the way to “night market” status. Walk up, buy some food, walk away, zero seating. My Google Maps history says I got out at exit M5 and headed toward my hostel (We Come Hostel), so somewhere in that area there are amazing dumplings. I got pork and cabbage, good alone but awesome with the spicy sauce ($1.25), and the winner of savory food that day was the pork bun. I thought it was a little plain at first because my first bite was bun and juices, but the meat filling was amazing, tender, and a little lemongrass flavored (.50¢).

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Literally any convenience store:
It’s not only local food stands and tea houses that have food adventures. I got a ginger Twix at the corner store. It’s basically a Twix with a gingersnap core. I do enjoy trying local variants of global brands. If you pop in for a bottle of water, take a look around and see if there’s something unique on the shelves.

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Shifen Old Street
While reading about the Shifen Old Street, I discovered a recommended local delicacy of chicken wings stuffed with fried rice. There is one small shop which takes the bones out of chicken wings and stuffs them with fried rice. It’s absurd and delicious. Walk all the way up (it’s not far) and look for this cart.

Jiufen Old Street
This is a foodie bonanza. Other than the night markets, this was the greatest concentration of interesting foods in one place. I didn’t even have time to sample most of it because I couldn’t eat enough! Of what I did get to try, the winners were pineapple cake and peanut ice cream. Pineapple cake is another super famous Taiwan treat. I did not understand what the big deal about the pineapple cake was until I ate some. I had an idea of western style pineapple upside-down cake, which is a bit like a fruitcake and not a thing I’m very into. The Taiwanese pineapple cake is nothing like this. It looks like a very plain beige square, but holds a taste explosion. The middle is a perfect pineapple compote and the outside is a crumbly rich butter cookie.

The peanut ice cream (above) is actually pineapple and taro ice cream with shavings from a huge block of candied peanut wrapped burrito style. It’s a wonderful mix of sweet, salty, fruit, and creamy. I also tried an award winning nougat cookie. The coffee flavor was rich and well balanced with sweet, salty, and bitter. I understand why it won awards. The most interesting was a kind of thin pork jerky (paper thin) spiced with cinnamon and wrapped in seaweed. I would have never thought, but nori and cinnamon go well together. I mostly ate samples because a lot of the goodies were only sold in large gift boxes, but I’m glad I got to try so many things! Taiwan food is epic!

At the Underground Mall at Taipei Station
Somehow I was still hungry after all that food in Jiufen, so I got some beef noodles and onion pancake for dinner when we got back. The beef noodles are another famous item, and you can find them just about anywhere. It’s nothing different from what you’d expect, beef broth, noodles, beef and spices… it’s just… yummy.

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Taichung

Yizhong Street Night Market 一中街夜市
I chose a less famous and more local night market at the advice of my hostel, and ate so much food! I had fried squid for dinner and candied fruit for dessert. This type of candied fruit was something I first had in China and love love love. I was only sad they didn’t have the tart haw fruit version, but strawberries are a good substitute. While exploring, I kept seeing signs for black sugar bubble tea, turns out “black sugar” is basically molasses. The tapioca pearls are cooked in the molasses mixture and then mixed into the milk tea. SO GOOD!

Across the street from No. 65, Zhongxing Street, Dongshi District Taichung City
While I was hanging out with another ESL teacher and her local buddy, he drove us to a small hole in the wall restaurant. Google Maps doesn’t have the place I went, but in street view, I can see it’s across from No.65. Look for the teal awning, not the red sign. It’s a Kejia restaurant (Kejia are a local minority people) and I ate so many delicious vegetables.

The Uptowner  雙城美式餐廳
The ESL teacher I met on my trip invited me out to brunch at a local American influenced place. I got these beautiful Florentine Bennys, perfectly poached eggs, and delicious sauces with spinach and tomato added. I know it seems strange to go to Taiwan to eat American, but remember I don’t get this kind of food in Korea.

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Miyahara Ice Cream  宮原眼科
While I was looking online for famous food spots in Taichung, the Miyahara Ice Cream factory came up. It’s a top of the line gourmet ice cream and chocolate place that is in the old remains of a Japanese ophthalmologist’s building. Today it has a magical atmosphere that reminds visitors of Hogwarts. The building alone is worth a visit, but since you’re there, be sure to eat the ice cream too. They do sell single cones and cups out front (no seating), but if you come in, you can get one of the amazing 4 scoop sundaes as I decided to do in place of a normal dinner that night.

The 4 flavors I chose were 44% chocolate (light and creamy), 80% chocolate (dark and smokey), black tea and green tea. When they bring your ice cream to the table, they wheel out a toppings cart and you can choose 5. I went for cheesecake, pineapple cake, fruit candy, butterfly and bear cookies. While I was eating, the staff brought by a bonus raspberry flavor fluffy cheesecake dream to taste, so I ended up with 6 toppings. The ice cream was a bit gelato-like, very smooth, and dense, creamy not icy. The flavors were strong but balanced, and there was so much variety in my sundae I never got tired of combining different ice creams and toppings together. Taiwan really is foodie heaven!

Kaohsiung

Liuhe Night Market/Liuhe Tourist Night Market 六合夜市/六合觀光夜市
The night markets are the best place to get dinner if you’re willing to forgo seating (and it’s worth it to eat standing) At this one, I got baked scallop for an appetizer, Aboriginal style wild boar ribs for the main dish, and Chinese style candied sweet potato for dessert (also one of my favorites from China). It was so much fun to see all the foods on offer and to talk with the vendors. There’s less tourism in Kaohsiung, so they were more excited to have a visitor try their food.

Bonnie Sugar 駁二店 (at Pier2)
Another great example of serendipity. I was just feeling a little hungry after hours of walking and taking photos, so I popped into a cafe in the art area. I was rewarded with an amazing fresh fruit tart that the Parisians would be proud of and a carafe of fancy tea with fruit ice cubes. Too posh!

Near the FlyInn Hostel
Kaohsiung is much more industrial than either of the other two cities and there was very little to eat near my hostel, so I ended up with some strange food choices including whatever this chicken thing is and a random place where the old lady called her son out to help me because my dictionary won’t work on the menu. I really don’t know what it was… mystery dinner!

Just goes to show that no matter where you choose – the 5 star Yelp reviewed restaurant or the soup shop down the alley, you’re going to find Taiwan a gastronomic delight.


If you want to end your view of my Taiwan travel here on a high note, I certainly don’t blame you, but I continue to post stories of my physical/mental/emotional limitations during my travels because I want people with invisible limitations or chronic illnesses to know they aren’t alone and that your limits don’t have to stop you from seeing the world. 

Invisible Illness & Love of Travel

In Taipei, a day of temples and a full day tour wiped me out in the warm weather. Far from being “warm winter”, the unusually hot weather and high humidity (25c + 85% humidity is unseasonable) combined with hours of walking and hiking. By the third day I had to cancel additional sightseeing because the body said no. 

In Taichung, I met some fun people to spend the day with, another teacher who in lives Korea and her local friend. The local friend had a car and offered to drive us around and we had a lot of fun taking photos and being silly tourists together, but at some point I ran out of spoons and had no idea how to explain or adapt with these friendly strangers.

Trying to explain a few of my limitations and the accommodations I’ve made for myself (not expecting anyone to do for me, just the way I’ve come to manage my issues) I got a lot of push back from the girl who invited me along. Don’t get me wrong, it was 90% a good day but it was so hard to get her to understand why I was in pain and tired at the end and why I wasn’t going to be up for more the following day. She’s 13 years younger than me and basically said everything in the “you don’t look sick” playbook. I love meeting people and making new friends, I know I had more fun and more experiences with them than I would have alone, I just hate that I have to push myself beyond my limits just to be the slowest one in a group.

In Kaohsiung, going to Maolin and Foguang Shan on the same day was a lot. I got on the road at 7am, hiked all over a mountain for several hours, navigated the bus system on my own when Google turned out be a liar, hiked more at a mountain monastery (so. many. stairs.) and navigated back to town without relying on Google which is frankly crap about Taiwan public transit info. It was a 13+ hr day, and about 5-6 hrs spent hiking the hills and stairs.

By the end, I was tired, and my feet hurt like hell, but my legs were fine. It’s not a matter of being weak or out of shape because the parts of my body complaining (feet, ankles, lower back, hands) aren’t the muscles used to climb. I slept hard and long, and while not fully recovered the next day, I mentally/emotionally felt better than I did after the tour group day in Taipei or the day in Taichung with the other teacher and her friend.

It seems I just handle the challenges better when I’m on my own time table rather than trying to keep up with others. Being on my own still isn’t 100% guaranteed to be “at my pace” because sometimes I still have to hurry to catch a bus or something, but it definitely has less negative impact on my well-being. It makes me a little sad to think I’m just going to have to turn down invitations hang out with fellow travelers on the move, I love meeting people, and I get lonely quite often, but knowing I can achieve my travel goals if I’m patient with myself is something that can help me out while I’m on the road. 


That was my reflection at the end of the Taiwan trip a year ago. I still think it’s very much true. Even just walking to dinner with friends from the office, I struggle to keep up. In Ireland, I could see that some terrains I pulled ahead and in others my travel companion did. I had one good “hiking” day in Korea last fall, but mostly because we all agreed to go super slow and stop often for photos and the weather was awesome. Here in Spain as I write this I can tell that some days I have more or less brain fog, or that my ankles or knees are more or less able to handle the stairs. It’s not fun, but I can handle my body and brain most of the time, even the bad times. The hardest part is the isolation I feel when I get left behind because other people can’t. I ask if you have a friend or relative who is fine one day, but can’t do anything the next, don’t make a fuss. If they are a little bit slow, just slow down, too, but don’t say anything about it. It means more than you can imagine to be included without being made to feel like a burden.

Art, Food, and Parks in Paris

The majority of the August 2019 was spent in the Irelands, but I decided that I wanted to spend a few days in Paris on the way. You can’t really fly direct from the US to Dublin (without forking over a fortune). Connecting flights go through Heathrow or CDG. Any excuse to visit Paris. I know it’s very stereo-typical, but apparently I’m more basic than I want to admit: I love Pumpkin Spice Lattes and Paris is one of my favorite cities on Earth.


Where All Good Food Goes When It Dies

Pardon my mangling of Oscar Wilde’s famous quote, but this was the thought I had the first time I had a meal in France (not actually Paris yet, since I was on a road trip from Prague and my first stop was in Metz: photo album). I have not had any disappointing food experiences in France at all. I have been trying to figure out how to afford to live and work in France doing nearly anything just so I could have daily access to the food. Since I haven’t yet figured that out, I am having to make do with an annual pilgrimage to see my favorite art and food stops.

I was only able to spend a few days in Paris this time around, so it was mostly a food oriented excursion. I wanted to get a full range of food experiences from fine dining to street food. The first dinner was at a beautiful souffle-centric restaurant called Le Souffle which serves a three course menu of entirely souffles. I was a bit apprehensive that it might be textually monotonous, but they serve each course with some sides like salad or croquette, and the main course was a mild cheese souffle with the beef bourguignon in a side dish so you could pour the meat and sauce into the souffle, breaking up the taste and texture. For dessert, I was torn between chocolate and creme brulee… I love both, but the idea of a creme brulee souffle was too intriguing to pass up. My only regret was an inability to finish everything.

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I got to have just “regular” (amazing) French food in a nice neighborhood bistro. I got to have breakfast at my favorite chocolaterie: Angelina’s. This place has arguably the best hot chocolate, and the breakfast pastries were exquisite. I got some “fast food” at Paul’s, and a picnic lunch from the Marche d’Aligre which included this fantastic “blue” cheese. It’s actually a Tomme duBerry a la lavande. It’s a mild, uncooked, pressed cow’s milk cheese that’s colored blue and flavored with lavender and rosemary. With some lemon olives, fresh bread, ripe apricots, and a lemon tart for dessert it was a magical meal in the park.

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I could go on and on about the food in Paris. Many people have. I was going to say I have, but it turns out that for some reason I never actually wrote about my first time in Paris, and when I wrote about the second trip, I wasn’t very food focused because of the extreme heat wave going on at the time ruining my appetite. Perhaps the next time I go, I’ll actually dedicate myself to taking good food photos and notes so I can do a proper foodie write up of all my favorite places.

Let’s Go For a Walk

Since I never actually wrote about my trip in 2015, all the main Paris attractions that I did on the first trip never actually made it into the blog: Eiffel Tower, Père Lachaise cemetery, Sacré-Cœur, the Champs-Élysées with Arc de Triomphe, the Place de la Concorde and the beautiful Tuileries Garden.

If you happen to be in Paris when the weather is nice, these are all wonderful places to go. In 2018, I went on a cycling tour and I have almost no photos and less memory about what we saw because it was 37°C and I didn’t bring enough water. The moral here is, don’t force yourself to see the beautiful outdoor attractions if you aren’t going to be able to enjoy them. There’s plenty of museums and indoor / covered activities like street markets. I made it to the March d’Aligre on this last visit which not only had plenty of wonderful fresh food on offer, but also had a rambling rummage sale of old and lost things.

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I personally think that places like the Eiffel Tower (photo album), the Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe (photo album), and the Place de la Concorde are all things you could go and see one time for a few minutes and check that off the Paris bucket list. They just aren’t that exciting… Although, it was fun to realize that I’ve now seen the matched set of obelisks that reside in Paris and Luxor respectively. The one in Paris was given to France by Muhammad Ali Pasha, Ruler of Ottoman Egypt in exchange for a French mechanical clock in 1832. It’s twin still stands outside the temple of Luxor.

Notre Dame (photo album) is a place that I would have recommended as a one and done, however, since the fire, I’m not sure this stands true any more. I personally will be interested to see how it looks in a few years. Regardless, unless gothic architecture is your jam, it’s not worth more than a couple hours one time. It is totally worth that, because it’s a very beautiful structure, but it can be very crowded and I think it’s a little overhyped since there are a few hundred (thousand?) churches around Europe that are very very similar. But you’re in Paris, so you might as well.

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The Père Lachaise (photo album) could easily be several days of wandering through a stunning gothic mausoleum laden park taking endless photos of the natural and the macabre. Plus, lots of famous graves like Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. If you’re really into the dead, I think the Catacombs are a great indoor option, although I highly recommend a skip the line ticket because when we went, people were waiting 3+ hours for a tour. Also, while the above ground cemetery is definitely good for repeat meandering visits, I think that the catacombs are a single visit attraction unless you REALLY love bones.

The Sacré-Cœur (photo album) as a church is on my “one and done” list, but as a beautiful part of Paris is on the repeat visit list. The views from the top of the hill are absolutely stunning, and the culture around Sacré-Cœur is fascinating: from the roving “vendors” selling anything and everything on the steps to the famous Place du Tertre where local artist are painting and selling beautiful original works of art direct to the public.

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Last but not least, the Tuileries Garden is a large green space between the Louvre and the Musée de l’Orangerie. It’s a beautiful place to have a stroll any time of year. There’s wide open green spaces, chairs placed freely around the fountains, shady tree lined pathways, little bistros and of course a bit of a fun park at one end with a giant ferris wheel. I love to come here when I need a break between sights to enjoy the day and people watch.

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Paris Art & Feminism

I wrote a broader piece about my experiences in these two museums (d’Orsay & l’Orangerie) from my visit in 2017. In this essay, I’m going to focus on a temporary exhibition in the l’Orangerie about cubism and the unexpected feminist moment I found there.

In case it was never obvious before, I do consider myself a feminist (no I don’t hate men, no I won’t use the term “equalist”, yes I have lots of reasons. This Bustle article sums them up nicely if you want to read more). I’m constantly frustrated by the way in which all the historical artists, musicians, scientists, writers, politicians, philosophers… everything … of any note or record are almost always men. White men. Old. White. Men.

It’s not because old white men are better at these things. It is because the women who did them were suppressed. They were put down in their own lifetimes. Their work was stolen by men who took the credit. Their work was copied by men who took the credit. They were just written out of history. By the men who write history books.

Women are supposed to cook for the family, but only men can be great chefs? Women have historically been expected to spin, weave and sew yet fashion is a man’s business? Art forms that men can’t steal are just demeaned, like embroidery or textile crafting. It’s nice this is finally starting to break down in the 21st century, but we still don’t have enough of a balance in the way we teach and promote artists in mainstream culture. Adding women artists to the public consciousness doesn’t mean removing male artists, and it’s high time we start.

Many of the artists and composers and even authors on my “love it” list are dudes. I’m not going to stop enjoying their work just because I’m adding female artists to my worldview. I don’t know if I would have identified with any female artist growing up simply because I wasn’t ever exposed to any. I don’t think we have room for a limited number of artists in our lives. I think the more art the better. While we’re at it, maybe start adding non-eurocentric art and POC artists too, like Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872) who was an African-American man who escaped to Canada during the Civil War and taught himself to paint.

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The museums in Paris, in particular the l’Orangerie, have been trying to have more women artists on display. Last time I was there in 2018 it was Helen Frankenthaler. I wasn’t that into her art because I am not a fan of abstract impressionism, but I was really happy to see her in an installation that included Rothko and Pollock. The museum talked a lot about her life and the challenges she faced being a woman in the highly sexist art scene. She was talented, dedicated and prolific yet she’s not discussed when most people talk about this period of art history.

This time, the featured woman artist was much more personally to my liking and I became much more invested in her art and identity. I am only human, and tend to spend more time and energy on the things that personally interest / impact me. If you’ve never seen her work before, then it is my distinct pleasure to introduce you to the art of Marie Laurencin.

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“Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) initially studied porcelain painting, before going on to study drawing at a school in Paris and at the Academie Humbert. She was part of the circle of friends at the Bateau-Lavoir known as the “Picasso gang”, and it was here that she met the poet Guillaume Apollinaire with whom she had a passionate and stormy affair.

Attracted to Fauvism for a time, Marie Laurencin, the “Cubist Muse”, simplified and idealized her forms under their influence. From 1910, she preferred a palette of pastel tones, particularly grays and pinks. She went on to discover the painting of Goya in Spain.

In 1920, she began to paint the willowy, ethereal female figures that she would return to later in paintings with pastel tones, evoking a magical world. She painted portraits of famous Parisian figures, and designed stage sets, for the Ballet Russes in particular. Through this, she became interested in metamorphosis, bringing together two of her favorite themes: young women and animals.”

— Informative sign at l’Orangerie

It’s not that Laurencin or  Frankenthaler have been erased. They have (short) Wikipedia pages and it’s not hard to find their paintings online. Before the internet, however, they were virtually invisible to anyone who was not an art history student. Artists like Pollok and Picasso have had hundreds of books, movies, and t-shirts made about their lives and art. They’re referenced frequently in pop culture and have been made to stand as the premier examples of their art eras.

Picasso was a womanizer, an abuser, a narcissist and highly misogynistic. This isn’t just my opinion. It’s well documented. Yet we treat him and his work as sacrosanct as though it is the ONLY example of cubism in all of history. I’m not suggesting we bury the male artists just because they’re jerks, however I think it’s time we start taking a look around and who else might be worthy of historical preservation and artistic praise.

Honestly looking around the museum that day, there was plenty of Picasso on display. It isn’t that impressive.. OK cubism did all this great stuff for “art” and the advancement of creativity, but he wasn’t the only one. I found his works that day to be coarse and overly focused on women as sexual objects. I’ve had a chance to go back through a photo collection of his body of work and I think that whoever curated that particular display may have been selecting for contrast, and I acknowledge that wasn’t a universal trait. However, that day, it was jumping out at me that he was painting women as breasts with a body and maybe a face attached.

Even though Picasso insisted on referring to her as a Cubist Muse or “Our Lady of Cubism” Laurencin didn’t think of her art as cubist, but rather more impressionist. She’s still classed as a cubist artist to this day because art historians would rather listen to how the men defined her rather than how she defined herself.

Despite all this feminism, Laurencin didn’t paint women for empowerment. She also thought they were beautiful. “Why should I paint dead fish, onions and beer glasses? Girls are so much prettier,” she once said.

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To me it seemed that she focused on their beauty rather than their ability to please a male gaze/touch. Her paintings reached out and grabbed me despite their pastel colors and watery images. The idea that a women could paint women because they are pretty the way flowers or rainbows are pretty rather than because they stir the passions of men. There have been a few queer male artists in the well documented side of history that painted beautiful women in an absence of sexual desire, but mostly you get people like Raphael who literally made up non-existent sex goddesses to paint out of the most attractive parts of the hundreds of ladies he seduced. Really early photo-shopping of models, I guess?

It isn’t to say that Laurencin didn’t sexualize women at all. Apparently she was known for attending sapphic parties “comprised of lesbian and bisexual women socialized and discussed links between female desire and creative production”. If anything she was likely bi- or asexual since her long term relationship with Guillaume Apollinaire is well documented. However, if she did sexualize women in her paintings, it serves to highlight the extreme difference in what a male and female sexual gaze focuses on.

Regardless of Laurencin’s sexual orientation, the sapphic parties weren’t lesbian orgies. The hostess and participants of those parties were early first wave feminists seeking to own their desire and creative power at a time that most women were expected to stay home and raise a family. For context, the suffragette movement in France was happening at the same time (1909-1945).

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It doesn’t surprise me to learn in retrospect that she was a feminist and (probably) queer. I didn’t really know any of this while I was standing agape in the museum wondering how it was that Picasso had been shoved down my throat my whole life while I had never once seen these ethereal and graceful monuments of feminine self-celebration. All I knew was that they were beautiful and yet strong. They were made by a woman for women (Coco Channel, above, was one of her more famous clients) and that they showed beauty within a wholly feminine framework.

For a longer and more comprehensive story of her life, I recommend this website:

https://www.theartstory.org/artist/laurencin-marie/life-and-legacy/

Vincent and Me

I know I said I was going to tell you about Ireland, but… We passed through Paris for a few days on the way because CDG is in the middle of everything and I love Paris. Another visit to the Musee d’Orsay got me thinking about the impressionists I love, especially Van Gogh. So, this post isn’t about Ireland OR Paris, it’s about my experience at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.


In the summer of 2018, I passed through Amsterdam for a single day. You can read about the rest of the day here, but this post is dedicated 100% to the Van Gogh Museum.  It was such an inspiring and emotional experience for me that I paused to take notes about my thoughts and feelings as I was walking through the collection. Usually, I write reflections afterward, but my mind was racing with insights and inspirations so fast, I was afraid I might forget. I mentioned in my essay about the Musee d’Orsay how connected I feel to Vincent, but it wasn’t until I toured this museum in Amsterdam that I really understood the depth of my feelings.

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I didn’t include this in my original stories about that summer because I wanted to watch the movie “Loving Vincent” before I finished writing it. I finally got that chance when it turned up on Netflix for a short run earlier this year. The movie was beautifully hand painted in Van Gogh’s signature style, but I was surprised to find it’s almost entirely about his death rather than his life. The point of view character is charged with delivering a letter and gets caught up in the mysterious circumstances of Vincent’s supposed suicide.

I’ve always loved Van Gogh, and it seems everything I learned about him at that museum only made me love him more.

The Museum

The museum is so crowded. I had the very earliest time slot available and I still felt hemmed in by bodies. I went backwards from his death on the third floor to his youth on the ground level. I’m glad I started at the top because after 3 hours of wandering the displays, I felt all itchy skinned at having to deal with mountains of bodies, mostly focused on their audio tours, and many trying to take photos even though it’s not allowed except at special photo-op areas. Even then, the museum took my photo for me, and sent it later by email.

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That was a big contrast over the d’Orsay. There everyone queued up to snap photos of famous painting (yeah, me too), while in Amsterdam, people are just clumped around, usually plugged into headphones and oblivious to the presence of other visitors. I’m not sure which is better/worse. I think it would just generally be better if it were less crowded. It’s hard to get time with a painting when being jostled and stepped around. I’m glad everyone wants to experience the art but it feels like it looses something to my “oh my God get the humans off me” response. I can’t even imagine how it is during “peak” times.

I’ll talk about the main displays in a moment, but one little fun mention is the tactile sunflowers near the gift shop. Art museums are not usually targeted to the blind or visually impaired, but someone had created  a reproduction of the famous sunflower painting that can be touched. Along with touch, the senses of sound in the form of violin music with amplified sounds of the flower growing, blooming and dying (listen below), and the sense of smell with some sunflowers in a box. Interestingly, it was not only the smell of the flower but the smell of the painting as well. It’s not a part of Vincent’s art, but I thought it was an amazing way to experience art in a new way.

On to Vincent — backwards.

He died July 29, 1890, two days after receiving a bullet wound to the torso, possibly self inflicted.

Auvers-sur-Oise (May–July 1890)

 The works at the end of his life were frenzied like he knew his time was almost out of time, and he had to get as many paintings done as possible. He finished 75 paintings in 70 days, many of which are his most famous works: like Wheat Fields with Crows in Amsterdam, or Church at Auvers in Paris. There is impatience in the brush strokes and they looked massively different from a few feet away and across the room.

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The way he is attracted to the colors of night, the intense deep blue of the sky on days it gets so blue it becomes dark. The blue and pale gold of all his wheat fields that is a color scheme I would live inside if I could. He did scores of these kind of blue and gold themed paintings during his last days, but it wasn’t the first time he hit on the intensity of those countryside colors.

Saint-Rémy (May 1889 – May 1890)

Although Starry Night and Almond Blossoms were both made during this time, the paintings on display for this part of his life are drab compared to his other colors. Almost painfully dominated by brown and dark green with pale skies. He was in pain and unable to escape.

Part of the display in the museum here are audio recordings of some of his letters. We could pick up an ear piece and listen. I was entranced. Listening to his letters I could hear my own thoughts, yearning for something best called “religion”. He says that he doesn’t go to church, but he goes outside at night to look at the stars and the sky that is cobalt blue. He muses about color, that all things appear colorless when looked at too closely (sand, water, air), but that doesn’t make it true. He talks about his friends: that the bonds of friendship are one of the best things in life even if we resent those bonds in our times of depression.

I don’t know the best way to explain it other than to say his words resonated with me on a very deep level. I think we all struggle to be understood in some way and in a moment when you realize someone you admire and respect understands the way you think and feel, what’s more, understood it long before you were born… I suppose it could make someone feel less special or unique, but for me it’s like finding a friend across not just space, but also time.

Arles (1888–89)

This is where Vincent painted the famous Sunflowers, and where many people feel he truly found his voice as an artist, taking what he’d learned and finally becoming free. Van Gogh’s treasured friendships also started here where he sought an artists commune and cultivated a joyful and supportive relationship with several painters. They frequently sent letters, sketches, and even paintings to one another the way that we sent Snapchats and Memes across social media today. There is a painting by Gauguin of Vincent painting sunflowers. It is an imagination since Gauguin was not present when the sunflower paintings were made, but it reminded me of the “taking a picture of someone taking a picture” fashion in modern photography. It seems friends play the same games with images whenever they can.

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Vincent asked Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard to each send him a portrait of the other. Instead, they sent self portraits but had a portrait of the other hanging on a wall as part of the background.  It’s such a wonderful and lighthearted sense of humor. Sadly, Gauguin was such an arrogant ass that he never granted his true friendship, and instead left Vincent always chasing after his affection and respect, contributing to his anxiety and depression, and to his eventual mental breakdown, self-mutilation, and hospitalization. I don’t like Gauguin for a lot of reasons, this is really just one more.

On the other hand, Paul Signac, a neo-impresionist I only recently discovered in 2018 and one who has rocketed to the top of my all time favorite paintings list, visited Vincent in the hospital twice while Gauguin was busy avoiding him, so that’s nice to know.

Paris (1886–1888)

Moving to Paris was the best thing he could have ever done. Watching him develop his color palette reminded me of the first time I realized I was allowed to paint whatever colors I wanted. I didn’t have to make it realistic. It was so freeing and I finally started to like some of my paintings. Looking at his early bright-color works they all have an awkward, exploring feeling which is quite different from the bold and confident colors later.

He used a grid for perspective, which was a thing I struggled with, and he spent years doing just drawings because he wanted to focus on shapes and poses. He didn’t only consider them sketches but full works of art which he signed. I did very much the same thing. He also had a brief but torrid love affair with Japanese culture in 1887, and that was the first foreign culture I was drawn to before I really went full globe trotter. I have never been able to afford as much paint and canvas as I want, and the advent of digital photography and graphic design gave me a much cheaper way to pursue my artistic inclinations.909px-Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Bloeiende_pruimenboomgaard-_naar_Hiroshige_-_Google_Art_Project

While many of his artist friends preferred to paint from imagination, Vincent  preferred to paint from life. I wonder what he would have thought of color photography. It’s a way to capture a scene, a moment of light and color. Modern digital effects even allow us to manipulate the colors and light of a captured image. You can make a blue sky bluer, or over-saturate the colors of a cafe at night… I think he might have enjoyed it?

The Netherlands (1881-1885)

At the outset of his artistic career, he was trying to create a look that was popular at the time and that he genuinely admired, that of artists like Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton. Millet and Breton (left) were famous for dark and drab paintings of peasant life. They were very stark and brutal depictions of what life was like for poor and hard working, technically lovely, but emotionally ugly. Of course, art historians refer to this style of painting as revealing “the beauty and idyllic vision of rural existence”. I think that’s only true if you’ve never been poor. VanGogh (right) was determined to be like them.

He did an enormous body of work sketching local peasants and farm workers, the centerpiece of which is The Potato Eaters (below). It’s all done in the same color palette and mood as Millet and Breton, but the faces look almost cartoonish in his effort to capture feelings over accuracy.

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Seeing his still life of fruit in all brown tones, I was shocked to see it was Van Gogh and not Millet’s or Breton. 

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Just looking at the church in Nunes (left) next to the church in Auvers (right), you can see the change and growth. Yes, I promise, they’re both Van Gogh, but from drastically different stages of his artistic development.

I don’t know if he liked it, but it’s definitely a period of drab and dark colors maybe the landscape was more drab or maybe it was the influence of being near his father. He stayed enamored of Millet (left) for most of the rest of his life, and recreated many of those idyllic, pastoral scenes in his own brightly colored impressionistic style (right).

Life Before Painting (1853-1881)

It’s said that his mother never recovered from the loss of her firstborn child and that her relationship with Vincent was strained, but he was also recorded as being a “serious, quiet and thoughtful” child. His father was a minister, and two of his uncles were art dealers. He tried both careers with little success. His father was constantly disappointed in his inability to make it as an adult. Perhaps it was his time as an art dealer that made him try his hand at creating art, and why he spent so much time and effort trying to replicate the style and subject of the famous and successful artists of the time.

Reflections

Going backwards was an interesting choice. I realize that I, like most people, love best his works from 1888-1890. It seems like such a brief time span, but he practiced art for less than 10 years before he died. It is astonishing the amount of work he produced. When people say “practice” this is really what they mean. On the other hand, he was constantly trying to improve, so the fact that he clearly did is a testament to his devotion to self cultivation.

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Watching him evolve was a rushing, intimate roller-coaster of creativity and self-expression under difficult circumstances. He didn’t have formal art training, but taught himself by studying others. He experienced enormous frustration that his attempts to imitate the respected artists he was familiar with failed. Eventually, he found a community of like minded people and permission to explore color and shape on his own in Paris. It was the beginning of finding his own true self, and yet it destroyed his mind to the point that he landed in the hospital more than once. And yet, that Parisian community is what would sustain him in the form of letters, art exchanges, and the oh-so-important stability that even distant friends can offer. 

There’s a misconception that great artists are never appreciated in their own time, but that’s simply untrue. Most famous artists throughout history were superstars of their own day, like Hollywood actors and TV stars today. That Vincent never gained any recognition or respect until after his death was likely a contributing factor to his suffering in life.

Did he kill himself? Maybe. I know that the episode of Dr. Who where Amy and the Doctor visit Vincent is one of my favorite. That it helped me process the suicide of my own dear friend to realize that we can do everything right to be supportive and yet mental illness can still take someone away as surely as cancer. “Loving Vincent” made me question his death all over as suspicious information came to light regarding the gun, the wound, and the strange behavior of the people in Auvers. Officially, his death is still ruled a suicide, but his life remains a brilliant and sad mystery in many ways. According to his brother who was there at the end, Vincent’s last words were: “The sadness will last forever”

In some ways I’m glad I did not read about his life when I was younger. If I’d discovered all our similarities at the age of 20 I might have developed a complex. I might have worked less hard to get help and spent more time glorifying what was happening to me. Instead, when I learned that we shared a diagnosis, I was content just to know there was someone else with my brain trouble.

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I remember when things were very bad thinking that if cutting my ear off would make it stop, I would gladly do so, but Vincent had already proven it wouldn’t work. I could understand the feelings that drove him to see the world in colors and swirls, that drove him mad enough to drink and self-harm, that landed him in an asylum and eventually dead. I understood the sentiment, but I didn’t know anything else about him beyond a few paintings and his suicide. Back then, I looked only at his art and at the very most well known facts about his life and felt a connection.

Now that I’ve learned more details, from his family life, to his progress through art, to his views on the universe and human relationships? I’m blown away by it.

I’m not trying to say I’m channeling van Gogh, but I’ve always felt a kinship with him. I didn’t move to Paris and join an artist commune, so I don’t have a tiny fraction of his nearly 1,000 finished works. I probably never will, because I was able to manage my state of mind better, whether from support of my community or improved medical care, who can say. The end result is that I got it under control and now I not only have a lot more responsibilities than Vincent did, I have also avoided multi-year stretches of confinement under a doctor’s care. Despite this divergence, I can say that trying to be “normal”, “acceptable”, or “popular” in his own lifetime was something he desperately wanted and could never achieve is a feeling I know all too well.

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You can see photos of the complete works of Vincent Van Gogh on this wiki.

You can explore the collection at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsteram here.

Viking Country 3: Road Trip Treasures

One of the more endearing things about the road trip in Sweden was the sheer volume of cool stuff to see that is really close to the main highway. I feel a deep cultural attraction to “the road trip” which I’ve always sort of assumed was part of my American heritage. After all, as a child, my father took me on summer road trips in the RV to all the beautiful national parks of the West. My mom took us on weekend road trips up and down the coast or the town next door. When I got a car, I took repeated road trips with my friends. Loading up on road snacks, blasting your road music and pulling over when some random sign says “world’s largest ketchup bottle” is a basic part of Americana that thrives in my soul no matter how long I’m away.


Sweden is the only other country I’ve been to that I feel really gets it as far as road trip culture goes. Don’t get me wrong, I loved driving across Germany. Those people have amazing gas stations. The New Zealand drive was great and I loved having my own wheels in Bohol. The main difference is that, however beautiful the roadside scenery was in all those places, the road was just a way to get to places that public transit didn’t go. In Sweden, they not only have great gas stations, but also STUNNING rest stops that are basically parks and attractions on their own, AND they have the most wonderful series of roadside attractions.

On the day I fled the not-a-murder-house-we-promise, I found a cool viking church, another old-timey village replica, the most beautiful rest stop I’ve ever seen, and a giant statue by Pablo Picasso.

Viking Church

The Swedish people were late to the Christianity conversion party. After all, the religion’s spread originated in Rome, and the Roman Empire never quite managed to get a foothold in the land of the ice and snow. Vikings were worshiping Odin and co. right up to the 12th century, and even when they finally did “convert” it was… very halfhearted. A lot of the viking cultural and artistic trappings stayed almost entirely the same but with a little “for Jesus” footnote.

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I stopped in at Glanshammar Church in Örebro to see a little bit of how the Viking and the Christian met in the middle. I have to say, I wasn’t much impressed by the exterior of the building. There was an interesting watchtower construction, but the church was remarkably plain for something supposedly Catholic. I mean, think of all those Romanesque arches and Gothic cathedrals in Europe. What was this little white nub of a building?

Fortunately, I stuck it out and found the door. The interior of the very plain white building is filled end to end and top to bottom with highly intricate artwork that uniquely combines the traditional Christian art and architecture from the continent with the Swedish styles seen in earlier Viking tradition.

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Outdoor Museum of Provincial Life

Next, still in Örebro, I stopped by the 18th century village reproduction called Wadköping. According to the sign, many of the buildings were actually transplanted from their original home to create the open air museum. I began to wander the town, noticing once more the extreme prevalence of red buildings. I saw some ladies doing needlework with laundry drying, and I went into buildings for kids that had plaster animals and pretend food.

I found the home of Hjalmar Bergman (Ingred Bergman’s father), a famous if often misunderstood writer who wrote about a mythical town of  Wadköping as a kind of Anytown, Sweden representing a middle class provincial life. The recreational is named after his literary invention as there was no such village in reality.

There was a replica school house which showed a typical education plan for students including Christianity, native language, arithmetic, “knowledge of nature” (the natural sciences), gymnastics, gender segregated crafts, and drawing.

There were a startling number of little artisan shops inside the buildings. Some were simply souvenir and ice cream shops, but others included traditional arts like woodcarving and a silversmith. The Historiska Butiken was particularly filled with the kind of beautiful Norse styled witchcrafty goodies that I know at least 30 people in my immediate friend group would have loved to fill their homes with. Even I had a hard time resisting. Tiny luggage space saves me money again!

A Fully Functioning Castle?

My last stop in Örebro was the Örebro Castle. This was the only place I ever really had trouble finding parking since the castle is quite central and Örebro is not a tiny village. After a few drives around the block, I found some street parking and headed over. It was mainly an exterior photo-op because the castle is not decorated in antique royal furniture the way so many of the castles on the continent were. A small part of the castle was set up as a kind of tiny museum, and much larger parts of the castle are actually used as government and business offices. The governor even lives there. Functional castle!

While exploring, I also found a hiking trail sign that indicated a “walking with death” level of trail difficulty, and a dramatically oversized park bench, just for fun.

Roadside Picasso

Waving good by to Örebro, I hit the highway for another longer stretch in search of the Picasso. That’s right, there’s an original Picasso standing out in the Swedish countryside… or… lakeside anyway. I’m not actually a big Picasso fan, for complicated reasons involving art history and feminism, but this seemed like the Swedish equivalent of “the world’s largest bottle of ketchup” and I could not drive so near it without stopping by. It was a long slow drive down a thin, low speed limit road, but it was such a beautiful day, and the road ran along the waterfront. A worthy side-trip.

On my way, I paused at one of Sweden’s many beautiful and amazing roadside rest stops. This one was a small lake surrounded by beautiful evergreen trees. The water was so still that the perfect blue and fluffy white of the sky were reflected like a mirror. I ate my sandwich and watched the beauty, just feeling overwhelmed by Sweden.20180815_160148.jpg

When I finally arrived at the Picasso, I was not disappointed. It’s clearly his work, and it’s GIANT. I wandered all around taking photos from various angles before I realized that the absolute best angle for the late afternoon sun also contained a couple having a nice fika (cup of coffee & snack) on a bench below the statue. I tried my best to shoot around them, hoping they might finish and move, but in the end I had to go in for politely asking if they would mind stepping away from the bench for just a moment so I could get the best picture. I do hate asking people to move their picnic, but it’s not like I’m going to be back again any time soon. They were quite gracious about the request, and I got my “shot”.20180815_172959.jpg

Fine Dining

I had reserved a cabin in a campground for the night, but was slowly learning to plan dinner before checking into the more remote accommodations. With no desire for another grocery store dinner, I decided to stop in Karlstad for a nice restaurant meal. Thanks to Google, I found a place called Elektriska. It’s built in the remains of an old electro-technical plant and focuses on high quality, sustainable, local, ethically sourced food cooked with an eye for haute cuisine. It is not cheap, but it was just inside my price range, and sounded right up my alley. Not to mention, it was in an adorable neighborhood.

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Their cocktail menu alone could have kept me happy. In the end I chose a lingonberry Gin and Tonic made with Stockholms Branneri Pink Gin, lingonberry, grapefruit, and Mediterranean Tonic. ($15)

The appetizer menu also looked like something I could just happily graze my way through, but the waitress advised that even the larger sampler was unlikely to be quite enough for a dinner. I settled on the “16 Ampere” appetizer platter which included rainbow trout with dill and vinegar, truffle salami with ricotta and sunflower, and wild boar with plum and tellicherry. ($17) The menu is seasonal and based on what’s available, so don’t go expecting to get exactly the same.

The wild boar sausage and the wild trout sashimi were entirely delicious, but the star of this dish was absolutely the salami. I would never in 10 million years have thought to combine salami, ricotta cheese, AND sunflower butter. I love all three of these, and I have probably had salami and ricotta together, and might have tried ricotta with sunflower seeds in a salad or something, but… wow. I can’t even explain how amazing this flavor combo is. Get u sum.

My main course was more rainbow trout, and if you like fish you know you just can’t go wrong with fresh caught local rainbow trout in season. This was skin fried rainbow trout with root vegetables, sundried tomatoes, and crayfish tails in a buttered crayfish broth. (28$)20180815_202844.jpg

I included the prices because this was the MOST expensive meal I ate on holiday, and I kind of wanted to put in perspective what that means for me. A high quality meal and cocktail at a fancy restaurant is not something I do often, but I’d been saving by eating in grocery stores and local delis, and this was a splurge that was 100% worth it. Amazing food isn’t cheap, but it sure does make the pleasure centers in my brain light up like Christmas and New Year’s all at once.

Cabin In the Woods

I got to my “campsite” in Värmland after dark and had a little trouble finding the bathrooms, but fortunately I was the only one there, and I’m not afraid to pretend to be a bear. The cabin itself was very plush with wall to wall carpet and a sort of beach house all white linen decor, as well as excellent WiFi. Despite being an actual cabin in the woods, the whole vibe of the campsite was homey and friendly which was a nice change after the farmhouse fright night.20180815_220708.jpg

The next morning I was able to easily find the bathroom and kitchen, make myself a cup of coffee and prepare a bit of breakfast from my grocery supplies. Traveling in a car means I can stock up on food for most meals and snacks more easily than when I’m traveling by bus and train. I was in no particular hurry to hit the road, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the little table and chairs out front of my cabin while watching the sheep across the road.

Once I felt full and rested, and put all my bedding in the laundry room, I hit the road once more. The cabin rules had included a rather extensive list of guests cleaning responsibilities and it wasn’t the first time I encountered such. The Langholm hostel had similar rules instructing guests not only to strip the sheets for the laundry staff, but also to take out the trash and sweep the floor before checking out! I try to be a good guest and never leave a big mess behind, but for me that usually means putting all my waste IN the garbage and cleaning up any big spills. I know pretty much all US hotels/hostels have housekeeping that have to clean the rooms between guests, but I’ve never seen the need to make extra work for them. Still it was a stretch even for me to be told that I had to go to the main building and get the vacuum cleaner, haul it over to the cabin and vacuum, then take it back, and also fold all the bedding after removing the duvet covers. I guess I’m just saying if you go to Sweden, expect to be your own housekeeping.

Winging It and Winning

I was getting used to following the roadsigns to roadside attractions by this point in my road trip and I happily turned off to explore Borgvik and Hyttruin without really knowing what I’d find. Hytta means “foundry”. Hyttruin is therefore the ruins of a foundry. I’m not a person who is typically interested in ironwork, and I think if the sign had said “iron foundry” I might have kept driving, but then I would have missed these wonderful ruins, and you know how much I love ruins.

Looking at the size of the defunct forge, I could imagine mythical dwarves making Thor’s hammer there. It was enormous, but it’s not from the days of antiquity, it’s just from the 1800s. Alongside the ruins ran the waterfall that was created to supply the foundry with hyrdropower. There were signs around the place explaining the history of pig iron, and the ins and outs of manufacture, but it turns out I’m still not interested in iron production. Very cool ruins, though.

Art & Lunch

Next I popped into a little art gallery nearby (still in Borgvik) called Sliperiet. It turned out to be a restaurant/art gallery and I opted to do both. Being hungry, I started with the restaurant and once again indulged my salmon habit. It was another highly artisan place with only a few chef chosen dishes on the menu each day. The salmon and veg were perfectly lovely, but what made the dish sing was the lemon cream. I don’t know how he made this stuff, but it was absolutely lemon and cream in the best possible way. Both are great with salmon but together it was heaven. I could eat that lemon cream every day on everything.20180816_130950.jpg

While I was eating, the staff brought me a booklet with little biographies of all the artists on display in the gallery which gave me a chance to think about what I was going to see. I decided to do the museum as a break between lunch and dessert, and I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of art on display in what was really the “middle of nowhere”. I took photos of absolutely everything, but I’m only going to share some of my favorites here.

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In case you want to follow up on any of these fine creators, I’ve tried to include relevant links: Albin Liljestrand, Kjell Engman, Stephan Westling, Ann Lillqvist, Rodney Smith, Christian Coigny, Nino Ramsby, Ylva CederTim Flach, Sara Nilsson, Jonas Rooth, Eka Acosta

After a lovely dessert of crème brûlée, I asked the very kind and helpful staff people where to go next. I had planned a day “in Varmland” but had no idea what was there, and had been going off of roadside stands and Google Maps markers with some success so far, but it never hurts to ask a local. They told me about an artist commune called NotQuite and I resolved to include it as my last stop in Varmland for the day.

An Artist Commune

20180816_161751NotQuite is an artist community built in an old paper factory in the middle of nothing. The art on display is far more experimental and boundary pushing than anything else I’d seen that summer, and not all of it was good, but all of it was sure trying to BE something. I wandered into the abandoned factory floor where art installations were scattered around almost as though they had been abandoned along with the paper. Small bright displays stood alone in large concrete rooms, and almost all of the signage was only in Swedish.

I found a mattress with some cobbled together VR goggles and a vague sort of “play me” note. It was an odd distorted and block color reality with a voice over in English of a person of indeterminate gender exploring the concept of sexuality. Very much everything you might stereo-typically think of when you think of experimental art commune.

It was mostly empty, but I’m not sure if that was because of the time of day or time of year. After spending a while wandering through the factory buildings and trying out the art, I headed back to the main gates. I stopped in at the gift shop on the way out where some of the more polished and “ready for home consumption” kind of art was on sale. I had a chance to ask a few questions about the place to the lady behind the counter. She explained that while a few people did choose to live on site, that most simply came there to work, and that they were funded by a grant from the government to support the arts. You can learn more on their website.


Sweden still makes me sigh with longing when I think of these days. Staring now down the barrel of planning another summer holiday, I’m deeply tempted to return and explore a new part of the country. While I’ve enjoyed my time in Korea these past few years, it lacks the freedom, the nature, and the stunning variety of culture and food that I yearn for. Still, until I have a stable landing pad for my next “home base” I guess I’ll take what I can get in the holidays. 

Amsterdam: Cheese, Gin & Canals

I chose to do Amsterdam as a day trip from Den Haag. I looked at rooms in Amsterdam, and even the possibility of renting a flat for longer, but the city is just so insanely expensive, I couldn’t justify it. I left Den Haag as early as I could in order to cram as much Amsterdam as possible into one day. I enjoyed the canals, and the beautiful architecture while walking around.  My top priority was the Van Gogh museum (posted elsewhere), but I also enjoyed a cheese tasting class, and a tour of the Bols distillery where I learned the true meaning of Dutch courage, and a nice stroll along the canals.


Landmark Photos

Right outside the Van Gogh museum is the main entrance to the far more famous Rijksmuseum (which I did not have time for on this trip), as well as the “I Amsterdam” sign that EVERYONE needs a selfie with, and a rather large sculpture of an astronaut floating over a nice shallow pool where everyone was playing and splashing on the hot summer day. I don’t have a story because I didn’t try to fight the crowds to climb the letters, but I thought you’d like to see the photos anyway.

 

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Cheese Tasting

Dutch Gouda cheese is famous. Well, cheese famous anyway. I am a cheese-a-holic, and gouda is at very least in my top 10 favorites. I couldn’t visit the home of gouda without doing a cheese tasting. I managed to find something that was a little bit more than just a taste however when I stumbled on to Reypanaer. I signed up for a cheese tasting CLASS.

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This was no mere cheese taste, it was truly a learning experience. The woman instructing us reminded me of Minerva McGonagall if she were Dutch instead of Scottish. We were given a paper to record our impressions of each of the cheeses, and we were taught to recognize common notes in cheese like “wood”, “grass”, “caramel”, “alcohol”, “salt”, “butter”, “cream”, “vanilla”, and “nutty”.

Each cheese was paired with an appropriate wine or port to enhance the experience. Our teacher had us examine the color first, while she would tell us about the cheese itself. When we sliced, we were told to slice thinly, not because the shop was being stingy with samples, but because thin slices of cheese allow you to taste the more complex flavors more fully (we were allowed as many slices as we liked until it was time to move on to the next flavor, but really they were so rich I couldn’t eat much and didn’t feel like I needed to). Next we were asked to smell the cheese and think about what kind of smells we got. Finally we were allowed to taste it and asked to think about both flavor and consistency as we took our notes.

When everyone had tasted and jotted down some basic impressions, we talked about what we had experienced and our teacher guided us toward a better understanding of the complex flavor experiences of each cheese. I think a lot of the people in the room just wanted to eat cheese and drink wine, but I very much enjoyed the classroom environment and the chance to learn more about the traditions of Dutch cheese making. I think the informative instruction enhanced my experience of the flavors and textures of the cheeses by making me more aware of what I was consuming and how I was perceiving it.

Our first cheese was a chèvre affiné, a 4 month aged cheese made from goats milk. My mother thinks she hates goat cheese because she’s never eaten this. It was not the most amazing cheese I’ve ever eaten, but I could eat it regularly with a side of sliced fruit and not be sad. It had notes of butter, grass, and bread. The color was almost pure white, and the texture was quite smooth while still being firm.

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The next cheese was a chèvre gris, a 10 month old goat cheese with notes of hay, caramel, and bread. The color was nearly identical, but the texture was more crumbly and there was some presence of salt crystals (as cheese ages, salt crystals form in the cheese, no extra salt is added, this is a natural process as the moisture slowly evaporates over time). The flavor was strong enough that I would choose to eat this in moderation, or as a meal finisher with some nuts.

From here we moved back to cow’s milk cheeses in the Gouda family.

Taste #3 was a 6 month old Gouda the color of a fall harvest full moon. It was very creamy and highly munchable. Another great option for a finger food platter or a sandwich cheese.  Taste #4 was the Reypanear 1 year aged Gouda. It was recorded in my notes as “zomg spicy zingy full on wow”. It was amazing how much another 6 months on the shelf could change the flavor of the cheese. Salt crystals were beginning to form, the texture was a little dryer and the flavor was a million miles higher.

If I thought taste #4 was amazing, my tongue was not prepared for taste #5, a 2 year aged Gouda from the Reypanear fromagerie. I really believe my taste buds died and went to heaven and reincarnated back into my mouth. I recorded the color as “smokey topaz”, the smell as “caramel, alcohol, chocolate, nuts, and vanilla”, the taste as “all the flavors on a magical journey”, and my overall impression as “could eat it forever”. It’s strong, with a crumbly texture and visible salt crystals, and it is one of the most amazing things I’ve put in my face.

And lest you think I was just getting a cheese high and every taste was better and better, I did come back from the edge of ecstasy on the last cheese of the class: #6, the 3 year old Gouda. I still enjoyed it very much, but it was far more sharp with almost a citrusy overtone, and something I would only eat occasionally. While everything else was served with wine or port, this was appropriately served with scotch whiskey.

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Not all Gouda are produced alike. Please don’t read my reviews and get some random 2 year gouda and then get mad when it doesn’t change your life. Like most foods, the quality of ingredients count for a lot, and in the case of aged foods, the environment has a big impact.

Reypanaer uses as much grass fed cows milk as they can to get the best tasting milk. Much like Cantillon, Reypanaer allows the curds to rest in trays and collect unique wild microbes from the environment that will be crucial to the flavor of the finished cheese. In addition, their cheese is aged in old-fashioned warehouses where the only controls for temperature and humidity are opening and closing various doors around the space. The warehouse itself is considered a micro-climate because of it’s long tradition of aging cheeses and the accumulation of special bacteria, fungi and molds that add to the flavor of these naturally aged cheeses.

Cheaper, mass produced cheeses use sterilized climate controlled rooms to age the cheese and get a fast, inexpensive, and easy way to get a consistent product. The old fashioned techniques at Reypanaer are labor intensive since cheeses must be checked regularly during the aging process and the warehouse environment must be carefully balanced by humans instead of machines. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with using a factory produced cheese on your sandwich, but the difference in quality and gustatory experience is so significant that I must recommend to every cheese lover to try such a traditionally made cheese at least once in your life. Take my word, I’m officially an expert in cheese tasting 😉

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I got a steep discount by purchasing my Reypanaer and Bols tour tickets together, anb after the cheese class, I took a nice walk to clear my head and my palate. On the way, I passed an enormous and imposing building that I thought must surely have been some kind of castle or government building, but it turned out to be a shopping mall… Europe has too much extra architecture!

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Bols

Ever wonder where the expression “Dutch Courage” comes from? Well, I found out at the Bols Distillery.  Upon presenting my ticket at the main counter, I was given an audio guide, a little vial of liquid, and a token.

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This tour was totally self guided and I could play, pause, skip or repeat portions of the pre-recorded audio guide as I wanted. The first room was a timeline history of the distillery and the evolution of their product over time.

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As you might guess from the photo, the history starts in 1575 when the Bols family started making flavor infused liquor with cardamom, orange and cumin. In 1664, the family started producing Genever, a kind of distilled spirit made of “long fermented rye, wheat, and corn”. By 1700, Bols became a major shareholder in the Dutch East India trading company, giving them access to so many spices from around the world, and leading to the development of more than 300 unique flavors, as well as untold post-colonial damage to the cultures that originally grew those spices. It’s still weird to me how proud the Dutch are of their role in that part of history…

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In the 1800’s they got really good at making a totally unique version of Genever with a proprietary distilling technique and the addition of a secret recipe of botanicals – mostly juniper berry, but also anise, ginger, hops and angelica (an herb described as “earthy, herbal, and reminiscent of wormwood, so no I don’t know what that tastes like either). Later that century they began to also age the Genever in oak barrels. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, British soldiers would drink Genever before battle to steady their nerves and it became known as “Dutch Courage”. When the war was over, they missed the beverage and English Gin was born. Although the original Bols recipe was discontinued for a while, it was resurrected in 2008, so you can still taste it today.

The next room was filled with a display of tiny delft pottery houses. The Dutch Royal Airline (KLM) gives out these collectible and limited edition bottles to their first class passengers since the early 1950s.

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Once the history and art lessons were past, the museum took a decidedly sensory turn. Instructions on the wall as well as in the audio file told me to enter one of the small experience rooms and to keep my flask at hand. It was time to use the little bottle of liquid I’d received at the beginning of the tour. I couldn’t help but feeling a bit like Alice holding a “drink me” bottle, but I figured if it wasn’t safe, then it wouldn’t be legal either. Once in the room I was given a countdown and told to consume the whole bottle’s contents (it was a large swallow, nothing crazy) when the counter reached zero. With trepidation and a leap of faith, I did as instructed and was rocked to my core with a whole body multi-sensory experience. 

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As soon as the timer hit zero, the experience began. I slugged my liquid and the whole room erupted in sound, light and vibration. The vial was not alcohol, but pure flavor. It started berry fruity, went on a trip through spicy, and finished with citrus and mint. As I was tasting these intense flavors, my eyes were treated to a series of colors, my ears were regaled with changing sounds, and my body tingled from the vibrations of the floor coming up through the soles of my feet. It was like someone just flipped the ON switch for all my senses at once.

And lest the sense of smell feel neglected (though that liquid was so strong, I’m pretty sure it came up my sinuses anyway), the next room on the tour was a rainbow smelling room. The Bols Distillery was starting to seem less like a museum and more like an alcoholic version of the Wonka factory! More than 30 smells were ranged on the wall, and by squeezing the bulb, a puff of scented air would come forth. The bottles were labeled by number, and the name of each flavor was revealed if you lifted the number. It was fun to play sniff and seek, trying to guess each one of the Bols flavors as I went, and it also gave me a good idea of which ones I liked the best, so I could choose my cocktail later on.

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The final display room got into more details about the ways in which infused liquor is made. I’ve actually had the chance to play with making my own infusions with fruit, spices, and vodka, so I knew a little, but it was a very thorough display. There were jars of spices and fruit peels on display, as well as a mad scientists laboratory worth of glass jars, copper pipes, and mysterious floating things.

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You can see “maceration” and “percolation” in this photo because the main goal of this display was to show the ways that flavor is extracted from fruits, nuts, herbs, and spices and turned into delicious drinks. Maceration is just soaking your stuff in the alcohol (this is what I did at home). Percolation is basically how coffee is made, you drip the liquid through the ingredient. And because no mad scientist lab would be complete without a big red button…

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Don’t worry, it doesn’t do anything sinister. Once the tour shenanigans were over, I was released out into the Bols cocktail bar where I was able to redeem my token for one free cocktail. I ordered the Spring Amour, a lavender colored, floral, lemony drink. I had been intrigued by the fragrance of the Parfait Amour in the smelling room, and this drink seemed to be a good mix: 40ml original Genever, 15 ml Parfait Amour, 30ml lemon juice, and 10ml simple syrup, with a sprig of fresh mint. I chose the Parfait Amour based solely on my olfactory experience on the tour, but later I found this description, “a beautiful dark purple liqueur flavored with flower petals and vanilla, together with orange peel and almonds. The Parfait Amour liqueur flavor is centuries old and probably one of the most fascinating and complex of all the Bols liqueurs.” I chose well.

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Walking Around Amsterdam

After my Bols tour, I tried to walk to the antiques area but it was all closed up by the time I got there. It really is amazing how much of Europe closes up at 6pm. When I read about the quaint area of Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, the blogger I read recommended going in the evening to see the shops lit up, but I think they must have gone in the winter when the sunset / street light time is before closing rather than 3 hours after it. Summer days are looooong. 

I had also planned to do a walk from Nieuwe Spiegelstraat through the Red Light District on my way to the train station but I was pretty wiped out from heat, walking, and day drinking. I looked at a lot of restaurant menus before I managed to find a place to eat for less than 15€. Amsterdam is, as I may have mentioned before, insanely expensive. I wasn’t looking for a fancy meal, just a simple sandwich and beer! In the end, I was very happy with my choice. I tried a local specialty of ossenworst, an Amsterdam local raw beef sausage. It’s beef spiced with salt, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace and lightly smoked. OM NOM NOM.

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After dinner, I walked through what should have been the Red Light District according to my maps, and while I did see more ads for clubs and sex shows and smelled a lot more pot fumes, I was either on the wrong street or it was too early. I’ve heard it only comes alive after sunset and during the summer dark is not until around 11pm. At 7-8 in the evening, I didn’t see anything risque. I did find China Town and closed Buddhist temple, and took plenty of photos of the beautiful Amsterdam canals before returning to the train that would eventually get me back to my Airbnb in Den Haag.

 

 

 

 

Antwerp: Architecture, Beer & Sewers

I will admit that the main reason I was interested in going to Antwerp is because it featured in one episode of the animated version of The Tick (a ridiculous super-hero parody from my early college years). In his nigh-invulnerable state, The Tick smashes up Antwerp while chasing some bad guy and his side-kick (not to mention the Belgian police) laments the loss of such amazing, unique, and historical architecture. It stuck with me, and when I realized that Antwerp was a viable day trip from Brussels, I decided I had to go. When I started searching around for what else I could do in Antwerp besides look at amazing, unique and historical architecture, I discovered a Sewer Tour. Who does that? Me! To the underground!!


Amazing, Unique and Historic Architecture

The architecture in Antwerp is truly stunning but so much of it is hidden by advertising and construction. Plus the streets are so narrow it’s hard to get a full view of the remarkable buildings. Just the train station alone is a stunning work of art.20180712_125014

Given the challenges I was facing with transit and my desire to see more architecture, I decided to take a leisurely walk to my tour starting point. I got to see the market square and famous statue that I’d first seen depicted at the Mini EU.20180712_142303The statue is that of a Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo throwing a giant hand into the distance. The story goes that long ago a giant named Druon Antigoon was charging a toll to those who wished to cross the river. When people couldn’t pay, he would cut off their hand and throw it into the water. Brabo rescued the people by cutting off Antigoon’s hand in turn. Now it’s the most famous statue in the whole city. Europe: Where the history lives!

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I also passed by an enormous cathedral which is another famous Antwerpian landmark, however, unlike every other cathedral I’ve ever been too, this one charged an entry fee of  6€. I don’t know what makes this place cooler than Notre Dame (free to enter), but I also didn’t pay to find out.

Not to mention some of the fun and interesting street art, like this sidewalk these nappers and a life size tiger that was part of the zoo’s promotional materials.

 

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It was a longish walk and I stopped for coffee and a rest on the way. I got in trouble for sitting at the wrong cafe patio. Not big trouble just “you can’t sit here because you bought that coffee from the stand with the same name as us”. If I’d known, I would have bought coffee from them, but really who knew two cafe’s on the same block with the same name didn’t share seating? It reminded me of the waffle shop in Brussels that wouldn’t let patrons use their seating if they ordered from the counter inside instead of from the waitstaff outside. Belgians are really picky about where you sit, but once you have ordered something from the correct place/person then you can sit there as long as you like.

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Finally I made it to the sewer tour, but I was a little early. It took me a while to find a public place to sit and wait. There were plenty of restaurants, but I only had 15-20 minutes. You’d think I could find a bench or something, but I think Belgians hate free chairs the way that Dutch hate free water. In the end I sat on a bench that was half occupied by a street busker with an accordion. Not ideal, but I really needed the rest before another long walking tour since the heat was swelling my feet quite badly.

In the Sewers

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The underground tour was great. They decked us out with boots and coveralls to protect our clothes, gave us sturdy packs to cover our own handbags/etc, and kitted us out with tour tablets that had videos for each stop explaining the history in Dutch with English (and other) subtitles. The guide was dressed more comfortably, but also probably changed at the end of his work day. He spoke English well but as I was the only English speaker on the tour I often had to remind him to translate for me, which he was totally willing to do, he just had to be reminded.

It was basically a tour of Antwerp from below. Very different from other city underground tours, De Riuens are what became canals in other cities like Amsterdam, but in Antwerp Napoleon covered them over because the smell was too awful. The sewage itself runs in pipes alongside the passages, but we still waded through brackish runoff water with compost and rat droppings in it. Good call on the galoshes and coveralls.20180712_153504

 

The tour took us around the main part of downtown Antwerp, and every so often we stopped to watch a video on our tour tablets. It was a great way to get informed about the history and to put into perspective what was going on above us, but it was also a bit difficult to watch the screen AND look around. The Dutch tourists could listen and let their eyes wander, but I had to read subtitles if I wanted the information. Only after the videos were done would the guide then add a few tidbits or answer any questions.

Along the way, between video stops, he would also pause briefly to point out interesting little bits of sewer trivia. My only complaint is that it was a bit fast for my tastes. Not walking too fast, that was almost impossible to do since we had to walk carefully, but not enough stops for photo-ops! I was the only one trying to take photos and look at details.

This is the fungus that grows like fine white hair in the rat poo.

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That is the rare spider that doesn’t live anywhere else in Belgium because the environment in the sewers here is so unique. (the photo is only spiderwebs because the spiders were very very small). These are the rats (couldn’t get a photo of them because they ran away too fast).

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Over there is the part where the church was built it so it looks nicer because they had more money than the civil government.

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This is the part where they built air vents that look like chimneys from the topside because workers were dying from bad air down here.

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Here’s where the locks were lowered so the tunnels could be flooded at high tide rinsing them clean. That’s why the walls sparkle sometimes from the salt water residue/salt crystals.

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Over there is the water overflow so the human waste can stay in the smaller tubes when it rains and the water can gush out the top leaving the heavier materials (human waste) behind. Also here are the wet wipes that don’t dissolve when flushed but accumulate as a kind of really gross felt. Don’t flush wet wipes.

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That’s a secret passage the Jesuits used for who-knows-what in the past but for smuggling provisions and people during the Great War even though they were often arrested by the Germans.

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Over there a stalactite it starting it’s life and in a few hundred years may really amount to something. Those black clouds that churn up with every step we take in the gray opaque water, grateful for having loaner boots, that’s compost. Here is where we used to let the cows out. Here’s where hundreds of thousands died from disease related to unclean water. Here’s how beer saved the water because breweries wanted clear beer.20180712_160139

 

Yeah… Antwerp (and probably a bunch of places) had horrible water quality that caused rampant disease and death, but nobody did anything about it until it was about BEER (or more likely about beer money). Brewers who were fed up with shitty (literally, ew) water messing up their product demanded that the city do something about it. Beer saved clean water.

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Since it was another underground tour, I thought it would be cooler but it turned out to be humid and hot. I felt like I was melting inside my coveralls. Unlike other underground tours where the streets of previous versions of the city were gradually built up around (looking at you Seattle) the De Ruien’s tunnels were never streets. They were canals where everyone dumped all waste until it smelled so bad it had to be covered. It took hundreds of years to go from open sewer canals to a healthy system that keeps the city, the river, and the drinking water clean today.

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Despite the crazy humidity, compost water, and rat droppings, it was an incredible and unique experience that I’m glad to have had.

Antwerp Beer And Street Life

Once the tour was over, I didn’t really need to worry about getting anywhere on time, so I decided to meander slowly back to the train station by a slightly different route to see more stuff. I walked down to the river to see the castle but it was sadly closed for construction.

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On one of my frequent “it’s too hot” breaks, I sat down to try the local beer, De Koninck, and get a plate of fries which is a huge snack or small meal depending on the size of your appetite. I don’t know beer language well, you can see from the pic it’s not pale even though it’s called blonde. The flavor is pleasantly nutty, and not at all bitter or sour. After that I had to try a coconut beer because some guys at the next table ordered it and I was intrigued. That was one of the best beer decisions of my life, right there. Like a piña colada and a delicious beer had a love child. 

There was a lot of busking in Antwerp. In the other cities I’ve encountered begging in droves, but here it was hordes of buskers. A new one every block, sometimes 2-3 in the same block. I especially loved a lady dressed as an oxidized statue who came to life whenever she heard a coin in her bucket. I thought she was a statue when I first saw her, and only when I paused to take a photo did I realize she was a person. She played with some little girls and blew kisses at people who gave her coins before winding down to her starting pose.

I also paused to listen to a young man sing Hallelujah soulfully, but there were more performers than I could have ever imagined outside an actual festival.

The Down Side of Street Life

The unpleasantly unique street life in Antwerp was the randos. I got approached twice by random dudes. While I was walking. Who does that? I mean, that’s not how you have a conversation. It’s weird and creepy. I was walking and suddenly there is a guy walking next to me trying to chat me up.  Ew gross go away. I don’t know if they were building up to a scam or trying to get a date or what… I can’t actually imagine doing that to another human, and I talk to strangers all the time. I have never engaged anyone who is already walking unless a) we are in a tour together, or b) I’m in a great deal of distress and need help pronto.

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These dudes were just chatting me up. I tried to tell them ‘no thanks’ as politely as I could but it took several tries, and what do you do when you’re already walking and they come up and walk with you? How do you walk away? I’m already walking! Dudes, don’t do this shit! It’s bad enough when you come up or of nowhere at a pub or when we’re sitting at a bus stop or park (also hella awkward btw), but to start walking with me made me feel hunted. It’s not “being friendly”. As a person who talks to strangers constantly, as a person who does randomly have conversations with dudes as well as women, I won’t talk to you if you give off creeper vibes and that shit is creepy AF.

Ending on a Positive Note

Once out of range of the creepy dudes, my walk back to the station was much nicer than my walk from the station had been. By that time in the evening ¾ of the shops were closed and all the people were sitting in restaurants instead of crowding the sidewalks. I could see a little bit more of the buildings without feeling like I was going to be run down by pedestrians in a hurry.

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The architecture and street performance isn’t even the end of it, since there’s plenty of beautiful mural art on the sides of the more modern and less interesting buildings.

Lastly, returning to the station cooled off and full of delicious beer and frites, I took a little more time to enjoy the Antwerp train station in all it’s architectural glory. The station is truly a work of art. I wasn’t even sad about missing out on the castle and cathedral after seeing more of that station.img_20180712_224539_138

 


If you want to watch the cartoon that first brought my attention to Antwerp, YouTube has your answer.  “The Tick vs Europe”

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!).

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Now the tunnels are full of art.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.