Monday, November 24, 2014

I <<3 Madrid

When my Dad suggested Amsterdam for this year's holiday, my reaction was basically "I hated it the first time, why would I want to go back?" And that was in the middle of summer, let alone gloomy October. Luckily, my sister felt much the same and suggested Madrid. Now here was an idea I could get behind. A friend of mine lived there for years, but I never managed to get it together to visit, so it's been in the back of my mind for a while. And of course, there was the lure of famous museums such as the Prado, and the promise of one last dose of sunshine before winter set in. And tapas, lots of tapas.

Despite all this, I didn't actually have much of a clue what Madrid was like, and it turned out to be much prettier than I had expected. I suppose its beautiful, monumental buildings shouldn't have come as a surprise - it was, after all, the capital of a rich and powerful empire for hundreds of years - but I don't know, I guess you just don't see pictures of Madrid's star attractions the way you do of Paris or Rome, so it was a pleasant surprise. Even when people talk about Spain, it seems always to be Barcelona or Majorca or Malaga rather than Madrid. But I'm definitely converted to the capital's charms.

Much of what was particularly enjoyable about the city is hard to capture in a blog post - the sunshine, sipping sangria or tinto de verano on a terrace, starting the day with churros dipped in hot chocolate, picking up freshly shaved ham at the market (okay, so food, lots of food). It's a cliché to talk about a relaxed, laid-back way of life - we were on holiday, not struggling with 25% unemployment - but as city breaks go, it definitely was more relaxing than some.

After arriving on Thursday and not doing a lot beyond sipping cocktails, on Friday we did the Prado. It's huge, they don't let you take photos, and it's well worth a look, although you do get your fill of Spanish court paintings after a while.

On Saturday, the plan was a good old-fashioned tapas crawl in the area around Plaza Mayor. A Madrileno workmate of my sister's claimed we could bar hop our way to free tapas, and while this proved not quite to be the case, we still managed to sample a few dishes. First, though, we accidentally wandered into the crypt of the cathedral, initially mistaking it for the cathedral itself (this is not as dumb as it sounds, it's huge and the entrance is on ground level on the other side from the real cathedral entrance)

In the cathedral crypt
Once we realised, we tried to visit the cathedral itself, but it turned out they were screening a mass outside on big screens, to a crowd of hundreds who were enduring the hot midday sun to watch it. Can anyone enlighten me whether this is a regular event, or if there was some sort of superstar priest in the house that day??

The giant outdoor Mass (plus a ton of people standing that aren't in the photo)

A (sort of) scenic viewpoint

No bullfighting. I'm not sure if these signs were a serious political statement or not

Not sure why they wanted to pose in front of a non-descript chain tourist trap (Spain's version of La Curé Gourmande), but it's a cute photo. Was that patronising?
PS If you like Mum's snazzy t-shirt, you can get one of your very own here
Back to the tapas crawl, we were lured into a hole in the wall place allegedly offering the best pork in Madrid by the tempting hoof of a sacrificial victim (methinks that chain tells a tale of shenanigans in days of yore)

Who could resist the siren song of the hoof?

Preparing for pork

Got to say, it was pretty delish! We sampled a few more places...

Mmm, patatas bravas

The world's dinkiest beers

Sangria o'clock
Before heading back to Plaza Mayor for some calamari sandwiches (good, but a bit dry).

Bocodillos calamares in Plaza Mayor
We got our money's worth in entertainment, however, as at one moment a couple of cop cars burst into the square and scattered the the various traders selling tatty gewgaws spread out on blankets which could be bundled up in a trice to flee the police. It looked like a well-worn routine, with the traders darting into the many alleys leading off the square in a blink of an eye, leaving the cop cars to execute handbrake turns in a pedestrian plaza crowded with bewildered tourists, before inevitably the traders came back 5 minutes after the cops left. I'm not sure whether they were trying to snap them for immigration irregularities, selling fake goods, or hawking without a licence (or all three), but it seemed a pretty ineffective game. It's just a miracle they don't kill a tourist doing it!

Jules and I could have gone for more tapas, but we ended up leaving to stake out a spot in a sports bar to watch the "El Clasico" football game between Real Madrid and Barcelona. It was a pretty good game, and the atmosphere was lively (even though an Irish pub mightn't be the most authentic place to sample it). Something fun to tick off the bucket list (even if it wasn't on there to begin with).

Monday, November 17, 2014

Meet the parents

Arrgh, I've been so slack updating this, I know. It seems like it's endemic in the blogosphere, with people shutting down their blogs left and right or just not updating that often, but that's no excuse. I'd like to say it's because of my busy social life, but truth is, I still have no friends in Brussels, so it's not that. I'd like to lay the responsibility on baths. I have a bit of a bath addiction, and it takes time to soak in the tub. Okay, it's not the worst vice the world has ever seen, but it has taken a toll on my water bill (90€ for a quarter, ouch!) Apart from just that it's nice to lie in a tub of warm, bubbly water and read, I think the appeal is that it somehow feels like a liminal space beyond the routines of everyday life, somewhere where you're forced to disconnect from your phone and the internet and just exist in a figurative and literal bubble. Or maybe I'm overthinking it. Sometimes a bath is just a bath.

Anyway, I'm not here to talk about bathing, I'm here to catch up on the actual outdoor things I've been doing. October was a busy month, or at least the second half of it was, starting with my parents' visit to Brussels. As I mentioned, this was a bit of a nervewracking prospect, since of course it was the first time they were meeting Jules. Well, I think everything went very well. Jules even got through an entire 5-day Madrid holiday with them, which is much more than I think I could manage if it were the other way around!

My parents had been to Brussels before, notably last year when we came to Belgium for the Spa Grand Prix, so this time we mostly concentrated on day trips to get a glimpse of the rest of Belgium. On Friday, we went to Ghent and magically discovered a whole new, beautiful area to the city that we completely missed when we went with my sister back in July. Best of all, the weather, after an initial spot of drizzle, was sunny and unseasonably warm. I really felt like we'd been transported to some southern clime as we relaxed on a terrace sipping wine and eating local specialities (I tried the waterzooi, very good).

Me and Jules in Ghent

Lining up in height order

The main event was the Ghent Design museum, specifically chosen to appeal to my mum's sensibilities. It was a nice museum, small enough to not exhaust you, but large enough to have quite a lot of beautiful and interesting objects. The cutest thing was the little Playmobile figurines they put in many of the display cases, making a quirky little treasure hunt through the museum.

My parents' visit coincided with Jules's birthday, so we headed out on the Friday night for a nice dinner at a local restaurant. The concept of the restaurant is "slow food", and being run by a couple - the husband cooks and the wife takes care of the front of house - it certainly lives up to the name. However, along with the slow food vibe comes a relaxed, family-style ambience. By which I don't mean that there are children running all over the place (shudder), I mean that from having to ring the doorbell to enter to the small space feeling like someone's set up half-a-dozen tables in their front room, it just feels like you've popped around to a relative's house for Christmas dinner or something. That possibly makes it seem awful, but when the hostess makes sure you've got nibbles and a gratis glass of bubbly plopped down in front of you shortly after you walk in (and keeps topping up your glass throughout the evening), you find you don't mind having to wait quite some time in between courses. We all had a really lovely evening (and yummy food), and by the end of the night there were hugs for all of us from the woman, particularly for my mum, who went back for two or three (you can't keep topping up my mum's glass without such consequences).

Birthday boy with my mum

We somehow managed to haul ourselves up and out on Saturday to hit the road for Antwerp, since my mum had commented on an earlier blog post that she'd like to visit. Again, it was a lovely day, and we basically retraced much the same steps as Jules and I on our previous visit, including seeing Saint Peter's church again in the sunshine and doing a spot of (very successful shopping). It's hard to believe that our first, relatively cold and definitely grey visit was in June, whereas this October trip was warm and sunny, but I'm definitely not complaining.

Just before I passed out

For dinner, we went to one of the semi-fancy seafood places on Saint Catherine's Square. I suppose this was meant to be a bit of a posher treat, but it suffered a bit in comparison with the delicious food and friendly atmosphere of the night before. The ambience was very cold, and the waiter annoyed me by doing the thing where they keep your bottle of wine in parts unknown and only come to dole it out when they see fit. I know this is supposed to be posh, but it's just irritating. Let me serve my own wine. I suppose there's a way to do it well, but this does not involve me having to flag the waiter down to ask for my glass to be refilled, as was the case on this occasion. The food was fine, but quite a bit pricier than the night before, and I think we all much preferred the fun atmosphere of the other place.

On Sunday, we checked out the antiques market in Grand Sablon, and I added to my (small) collection of Gien faience (thanks, M&D), before fitting in a bit of chocolate shopping - got to be done in Belgium, right? Then I actually can't remember what we did before eating dinner (a nap, I think) at my parents' apartment, which was followed by me getting horrifically sick. I was meant to go back to work for three days between their visit and our trip to Madrid, but I ended up at home sick, which of course probably looked totally fake, but honestly wasn't! I always feel like everyone at work thinks I'm faking illness at the best of times, so that was doubly the case this time. It could have been worse though, it wasn't the worst timing in the world falling between two exciting long weekends. Next time, Madrid...

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

I made a Buzzfeed!

Nobody's looking at it so far (unsurprisingly, I have no idea where it posted to), but if you're interested to learn which 15 churches I currently think are amongst Europe's prettiest, feel free to click!

I most definitely put credits in for all the photos, but they seem to have disappeared :( Also, I would have liked the image sizes to have been more even/to play around with the placement of the images, but couldn't figure out how to do so. And I didn't understand how clicking on the "reaction buttons" worked (I thought it was like tagging) and so I accidentally clicked that I thought it was "awesome" and I don't know how to delete that. Shame... So you could all go and click other things so hide my shame, maybe? :)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The prettiest church you'll see this week

Yay! My parents are visiting today, so I'll get to see them for the first time since last year's trip to Italy et al. Unfortunately, we only have one long weekend here in Brussels and then next week a long weekend in Madrid, and then that's that again for another year (?) But we'll just have to make the most of things! It will of course be the first time they meet Jules. I think he's a little nervous, but as I keep reminding him, he made me meet his entire family at Easter after we'd been dating less than a month, so it's about time the boot was on the other foot. Anyway, I'm sure everyone will like everyone and it will all go fine.

So anyway, last time I told you about our first day in Aachen, so I'll wrap up day two before I have new parental adventures to share. We definitely didn't pack as much in as the first day, starting off with a long buffet breakfast (all you can eat for 10€, very yummy and it filled us up so much we didn't need lunch) before heading to the Suermondt Ludwig Museum, known for its fine collection of medieval sculptures. What a contrast to the Charlemagne exhibitions from the day before! Most of the time, we were literally the only people in the place, despite discovering when we turned up that it was some sort of special free entry day. If you like that sort of thing, it's definitely worth a look.

Mary had a little book-reading lamb

Jules and me in the mirror room

A quite hideous Lot and his Daughters by Otto Dix

My favourite stained glass window. They seem to have some sort of prize for contemporary stained glass, or at least to house the recipients thereof

Time for a post-museum sundae!

Jules goes for the healthy option
We had tried several times to visit the cathedral, but had never managed because there was some sort of choral festival going on as well that weekend, and there was always either a long line or it was shut for a concert. But we decided to try one last time before going home, and I'm so glad we did! I've never heard anyone mention Aachen cathedral, but it deserves to be up there with St. Mark's in Venice or Sainte-Chapelle as places you absolutely must go in to. It's just sumptuously gorgeous. The original church dates back to before 800, and therefore the time of Charlemagne, who was buried in the chapel. Unfortunately, it seems we missed the Gothic Choir Hall, where Charlemagne's shrine is now located, booo. German kings were also coronated here for 600 years. Most of the chapels surrounding the core building date to the 15th century. Most importantly though, it's simply stunning, and I don't know why it's not more well-known (or maybe it is and I missed it). Less chat, more hat:

If you're wondering why I look particularly tense, there was a woman sitting on the floor next to me who was definitely on meth or an equivalent

That's probably more than enough photos, but seriously, how pretty is that? We had cunningly done no research, so it was a fabulous surprise to walk in and find this treasure. Definitely happy we made the trip!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Gute Fahrt!

I have some busy times coming up in October, so I need to tell you about last month's trip to Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle). I had been wanting to go for ages, even before moving to Brussels, ever since I somehow found out that this year was the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne's death in Aachen, in 814, and there were major exhibitions planned to commemorate this fact. Some strategic planning was required: the exhibitions basically ran over the summer months, which are obviously the worst times to go anywhere if you don't want it to be overcrowded and full of children. So we picked mid-September, after the peak of the season and a week before the exhibitions closed, on a weekend where there was no F1. Even so, it turned out to be extremely busy. Even in this special anniversary year, who'd have thought that Aachen and Charlemagne would be such a drawcard?

Aachen cathedral seen from inside the town hall

Ahahaha, gute fahrt! One of us laughed a great deal to see this on a biscuit; the other one speaks German. But even he laughed a bit, come on, it says gute fahrt right on it.

We set out relatively early on Saturday morning for the drive to Aachen, and after dropping our bags at the hotel, headed straight for the first of three linked exhibition venues, in the cathedral treasury. It was pretty cramped in there and you had to queue up and jostle about to try and see anything, but there really were some neat things. If nothing else, it was amazing to think of these things lasting for more than 1200 years (although some of the "so-called" and "supposed" caveats cast a healthy amount of doubt on whether all the relics were actually associated with Charlemagne). The exhibition brought together items from the cathedral treasury (either still there or that had been there in the past), which had belonged to the cathedral in the age of Charlemagne, and items supposedly taken out of Charlemagne's grave. (Seems a bit disrespectful.) So lots and lots of fancy reliquaries, primarily.

This made me laugh: those tiny bits representing "St Stephen's Purse" shown in the photograph

A nail from the purse. Oooh

A reliquary of Charlemagne's head, wearing his crown (which you can't see)

Reliquary with Charlemagne's arm bone

High five! It took so long to get this photo
An Antique tomb in which Charlemagne is believed to have been buried
We thought it was fairly crowded when we were in there, but we felt better when we came out and saw that there was a huge line just to get in. Early birds caught the worm! Talking of worms, it was time for lunch, and we ended up at a quick service restaurant called Hanswurst on the main square. It turned out to be surprisingly tasty (someone on Trip Advisor even hails it as the "best sausage in Germany"), but the best thing about Hanswurst turned out to be that they called everything Hans. HansJules had to wait to be called to the HansCounter to get his HansWurst and HansKnife and HansFork, etc. You probably had to be there, but for the rest of the weekend, everything was "Hans" something.

AND Hanswurst gives you the power of levitation
You weren't allowed to take photos in the other two exhibitions, at the town hall and the new Charlemagne centre, so I can just offer up this one photo of the town hall ceiling, which I include here out of spite:

Why spite? Because I took this as soon as I came in, before I even knew photos weren't allowed, and the security guard came up and told me (not impolitely) that not only couldn't you take photos, but I had to DELETE the photo I already took! What he didn't know was that I took two, so here's the first one that escaped his wrath. I also took a photo pretending to be a woodcarving of Charlemagne, because that seemed to be permissible:

The town hall exhibition was about 'places of power', and out of the three was the most focused on giving a historical overview - specifically about how and why Charlemagne established his court at Aachen. I'm sure it was very interesting, but oh my god, I've seriously never been so hot in my life. I'm not really sure if it was actually very hot in there or I was just literally having a melt-down, because no-one else seemed to be that fussed, but I was like dripping with sweat, I felt like I was going to faint or be sick, and I may have shouted at Jules until he took his sweater off because I couldn't understand how he was wearing a hoodie while I was dying. So I'm afraid we only did a quick loop around the room (also too many people in it) before I had to get some fresh air (and an icecream).

When I was sufficiently soothed by the power of icecream (Jules says not to expect icecream every time I have a tantrum, booo!), we went to the third exhibition, in the Charlemagne centre. This one was focused on Carolingian art, including illuminated manuscripts, carvings, and gold objects. Thankfully, this one was quite a bit quieter, dark and fairly peaceful, so I didn't freak out. There was still a bit of a wait to peer in to each glass cabinet, but it was nice to see these beautiful old books.

Unsurprisingly, that was enough exhibitionism for the day, and we headed to the hotel room to relax and freshen up before dinner, at the One and Only, just across from our hotel. Coincidentally, it was our six-monthaversary, so it was nice to have a great meal in a nice restaurant. I had a goat's cheese starter in an unusual lemony sauce, followed by some perfectly-cooked, moist, tender pork with an awesome purple potato mash, and a chocolate mousse in creme anglaise sauce. It was all super tasty, even if Jules "forgot" his pin number and I had to pay (insert angry cat emoticon here) (just kidding).