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).


Dessert!

Monday, September 22, 2014

A fair and a star

I knew there was something I forgot to tell you in my last blog, but I thought that since I'd sorted through all of my photos, I mustn't be missing anything. But I forgot that I didn't take my camera to Luxembourg the other week when we visited the Schueberfoeur.

The Schueberfouer is a fair in Luxembourg that has been going since 1340, when it was founded by John the Blind, King of Bohemia and Count of Luxembourg. That's a pretty sweet pedigree. That makes this year's edition the 674th of the fair!

There's nothing particularly historic when you get in there though. It's pretty much your standard fun-fair, with a mix of carnival rides, food stalls and sideshow attractions. (Jules and I were talking about fairs, and apparently they don't have the sort of school fairs we have back home, where everyone will bake cakes to raise money for the school and if you're lucky you'll get dragged around a field on a "magic carpet ride" hooked up to the back of a 4 wheel drive. Dommage.) There are lots of people - it apparently attracts around 2 million visitors each year, which either means a lot of Luxembourgers go more than once, or a lot of people come from outside the country, since that's around 4 times the country's population. Unlike the Luxembourg national day celebrations, it wasn't tooo crowded, although it was getting pretty packed by the time we left.

At the Schueberfoeur
One of this year's new attractions was the Skyfall, the world's largest movable free-fall ride at 80 metres tall. The view from the top was pretty amazing, but this has got to be one of the most terrifying things I've ever done. I wasn't even so much mentally scared as physically scared. I think there's a point where your body goes "that's it, I'm going to die". Even worse was doing it again after the first time!

Those are people up there

Up we go! Jules stayed on terra firma to take pictures

Waiting for the g-g-g-ghost train
Later on, after enjoying some delicious gromperekichelcher, we took a ride on the Ferris Wheel, itself 55 metres high, which gave us some great views of the fair.

View of the fair from the Ferris Wheel, with the Skyfall in the background

Visiting the fair also gave me the chance to catch up with one of my former colleagues

Jules

Et moi
Fast-forward to this weekend (skipping over our trip to Aachen for the moment) and the big event was our Michelin-starred lunch. Saturday was a gorgeous day, so we went out and about a bit before and after to enjoy it. It was the journées du patrimoine, but unfortunately we didn't have time to see anything since obviously the lunch took up the middle of the day. Instead, we visited the Botanic Gardens. Which if you ask me aren't very botanic, since there were no signs or anything telling you what the different plants were, and the greenhouse-looking thing is actually a (very hot) cultural/music venue as far as we could tell. Not the most impressive place in the world, but quite nice on a lovely sunny day regardless.

A beautiful day in the botanic gardens

Help! Crocodile attack!

It got me!
Then it was off to Bruneau, to "Dine with the Stars". This is a special promotion where you can go to have lunch or dinner in a range of Michelin-starred restaurants throughout Belgium. The deal being, it's a bit cheaper than normal, but you have a "surprise" menu. I sort of wimped out on the surprise even before we got there by writing "please no mushrooms" on the reservation, luckily enough since they were indeed featured in the main dish. Damn mushrooms are everywhere. I also had to get Jules to tell the waiter that I didn't want the coffee icecream dessert. I would have tried most things, but I really hate coffee. I can't even stand the smell. If there was a choice between nothing or a coffee dessert, I'd pick nothing. The restaurant went one better though, and brought me a chocolate tart! Could not have been happier, they called that one right!

First was an amuse-bouche of a mini goat's cheese waffle, followed by a trio of hors d'oeuvres - a pea soup, a cold sea bream preparation and a cod croquette. These were all really nice (especially the deep-fried cod bite), I forgot to take photos though.

Next was a "mosaic" of fish, made of salmon, eel and caviar, served cold. This is the sort of thing I'd never order, and I did leave some of the gelée, but that's actually just because it got in my head. When I was actually eating it without thinking about it, it tasted fine, but once I started really looking at the gelée, I couldn't any more. I don't even like gelée on the top of fruit tarts or whatever.


Fish "mosaic"
Second course was venison, normally served with a mushroom toast, but in my case served with a fig concoction. That thing at the front that looks like cheese is actually celery! The texture was a bit strange on its own, sort of like butter, but when eaten together with the venison it melted into it deliciously. The meat was perfectly cooked - again, venison wouldn't normally be my first choice on a menu - and the pommes dauphines were so good, I could have eaten a plate of them on their own.

Venison
Next was the famous chocolate tart, served with hot liquid chocolate and, hidden in the icecream, something I don't even know what it was, but it crackled like pop rocks when you put it in your mouth. So good! I bet that's how they would describe it on a menu - crackles like pop rocks...

Chocolate tart
It's not often a plate of sweets makes me groan, but the selection below that came with Jules's coffee was the straw that broke our stomachs' spirits. We did still eat them all though...

Mignardises
So, a very nice lunch, and I enjoyed the concept of the surprise menu even if I did cheat a little bit. They were very nice and accommodating about making those changes, which is great. It was nice to do it at lunch as well, as the restaurant was pretty quiet. Only complaint was that it was a little bit too hot in the room for me, and there was no air-conditioning, and the décor is a bit hotelly, but that is being picky.

We took a post-prandial stroll to the nearby Basilica to work off some of the calories (and sober up a bit, at least in my case). It wasn't really anything special inside (and a particularly irritating priest was baptising a baby in there), but it's apparently the 12th biggest church in the world and the world's largest Art Deco-style building (says Wikipedia). It doesn't look all that Art Deco to me, but what do I know?

Sacred Heart basilica

Photographing the view from the basilica steps

Me and Jules at the basilica
Then it was time to go home, watch qualifying on delay and basically loll about nursing our food babies. Good day! And on Sunday, I stayed in my PJs all day and watched Hamilton win the F1, which also counts as a very good day in my book :)