Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Le plat pays

One of the advantages of Belgium is that its small size, relatively centrally-located capital and long history means that you can get to many interesting places within a couple of hours - and of course, you're spoilt for choice if you want to go beyond its borders as well. So it would be silly not to make the most of living here by getting out and exploring ce plat pays.

Before I started work, Jules and I took advantage of our free time to take a day trip to Antwerp, where I'd never been before. To be honest, a lot of the day was taken up with shopping. Even though we stuck to chains, Antwerp has a great reputation as a fashion capital, and I think a little of that must have rubbed off on to the chain stores too, as we both managed to pack multiple purchases into our day. To add to the authentically Belgian experience, we had Wagamama for lunch, which was fun (and tasty). And Jules had Starbucks, so he was happy.

But we did have a little time for some cultural pursuits, mainly wandering around the city on a fairly grey day:

Grand Place, Antwerp

At the train station

Inside the train station
The absolute highlight, though, was St. Paul's church. Jules had a city maps app that gave some short descriptions of tourist sites, and it just said that this one had a good collection of statues in it. So it felt kind of magical to track down this out-of-the-way church (after first trying to go to a different one which was closed) and stumble upon an exterior tableau of the crucifixion, made up of 63 life-sized statues which date back to the 18th century, collectively known as the Calvary. We had the place to ourselves for the most part, and it really felt like a special discovery, with a peaceful, gloomy atmosphere no doubt helped by the dull weather. (Looking online, it seems to be relatively well-known, and we were guided there by an app, but it's still nice to stumble across something that feels off the beaten path, even if it's not in reality).

The Calvary, Saint Paul's church

The inside, beautifully bright in contrast to the somewhat eerie statues outside, is also filled with treasures from paintings to elaborate wooden carvings. I must confess I missed most of the famous paintings by the likes of Jordaens, Van Dyke and Rubens, but I'd really like to go back again anyway, so perhaps I'll get another chance to see them.

Interior of Saint Paul's

Carved wooden confessionals

Me and some ghost monks
Based on our quick flip through the app, there was plenty we missed in Antwerp, such as the Diamond and Fashion Museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, Rubens' house and the church where he was buried, and lots more. And as our day there attested, it's a fun place just to wander around and get your shop on. I'll definitely head back some time!

Apart from a trip to Ghent with my sister (blog post pending), our other main daytrip was to the Belgian coast, Knokke to be exact. First things first, it's really hard to park in Knokke. Having hit a bit of traffic on the motorway on our way there, followed by having to circle and then queue for a park, I was kind of dying for the loo by the time we got to the waterfront, which largely determined our choice of restaurant. Leaving Jules to find a seat on the terrace, I charged off into the restaurant and asked a waitress where the bathroom was. "In the tourist office", was the reply. I impatiently explained I was dining there, fighting the urge to knock her over on the the way to the loo, but I made it thankfully. And turns out, our lunch was actually nice. Of course, we sampled the (hopefully) local seafood - grey shrimp croquettes, which seem to be a bit of a Belgian delicacy, followed by a fish soup and a chocolate moelleux for dessert, miam miam!

Lunch was pretty leisurely, lasting about two hours or so, so it was mid-afternoon by the time we finally hit the beach. I would say it's been so long since I've been, but I keep forgetting that I did go in Majorca, so although infrequent, it's not actually been that long. I was surprised really by the fine, golden sand on offer. I suppose if you'd asked me, I would have pictured pebbly or shelly beaches in Belgium for some reason. Perhaps not so surprising was the constant gusts of wind tearing along the beach from West to East (or thereabouts). The temperatures weren't that high, and although it was pleasant when the sun was shining, any time it went behind a cloud (which was often) we were shivering. Suddenly it made sense why many people hired beach huts and why the sound of the ocean was frequently drowned out by people hammering windbreaks into the sand (seriously, a Belgian beach is about as peaceful as a construction site). There was also some guy with the deepest, growliest voice playing some sort of beach tennis behind us. We were giggling at the idea that he was a troll playing for the right to eat his opponent, but you probably had to be there. The match finished without anyone getting eaten, as far as I could tell.

Jules on the beach at Knokke

Beach selfie #nomakeupselfie

What's a day at the beach without icecream? I had gianduja (yum), limoncello (yum) and watermelon (too sweet) from an extremely popular icecream shop with an array of very exotic flavours - I tried to pick three I hadn't had before, but was spoilt for choice and changed my mind ten times even within those parameters

And a pretty bench
So that was our trip to the coast. I think Namur is on the to-do list, Jules would like to go to Bruges and I'd quite like to go back to Liège, since last time was mainly just running back and forth to the Spa Grand Prix (this weekend, yay), and we have trips to the French Côte d'Opale and Aachen, in Germany, on the books, so lots to look forward to!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

I'm alive, and when I'm not ranting, I'm having fun (and fish)

I've been very slack with posting, but I have actually been doing fun things - too many to fit in one post, so now that I've actually bothered going through my photos, hopefully I'll get back up to date. But first, a little rant. I got my deposit from my Metz apartment back (yay!), minus 100€ (boo!). The landlord had listed 5 reasons why he was withholding 100€. Some I didn't argue with - it's true that the walls did get quite dirty, although seriously, these walls stained if you coughed in their general direction - and I didn't bother contesting that he had to "clean around the wall sockets and the fuse box", although in my opinion if you don't notice these things at the time, you shouldn't really be able to decide that there was a problem several weeks later. And also something about the sink, which I didn't really understand, so I didn't say anything about it. My issue was that he charged me for some "degradation" of the wall heaters, which I have no clue about - I literally used all of them combined maybe ten times while I was living there, since it was a mild winter and I'm not one to turn the heating on full bore at the best of times, and even worse, he charged for fixing the flush on the toilet (one side of the dual flush didn't work), which I knew I had pointed out to him the first time we met. It's not so much the 100€ - if he had charged just that for the painting I probably wouldn't have argued, it's the principle that they're basically free to charge whatever they like for any and all damages, real or imaginary, and they know that you essentially have no recourse. What am I going to do - he knows I've left the country and I'm not likely to try to follow the matter up at a tribunal or whatever.

I wrote back and pointed out that whatever supposedly happened to the heaters, it wasn't my fault, and that it was kinda sorta unreasonable not to fix the loo the whole time I lived there and then to charge me for the privilege of fixing it for someone else, and received a rant back in return, saying did I think it was normal he had to clean up after me and paint the walls, and it was lucky that he did it himself because it would have cost a lot more if he had hired someone. Um no, that's why I didn't say anything about those parts, but logically if you value fixing 5 things at 100€, then fixing 3 things should cost less than that. I'm not the one who priced out the repairs, buddy. I didn't bother replying to that email, since it obviously wouldn't have done any good and would have just annoyed me further. Now that I've whined about it here I'll try to be all zen and let it go. Although, insult to injury, he sent me the deposit back in the form of a French cheque. French people and their cheques *rolls eyes*. He knew I was leaving the fricking country, what good is a French cheque to me? Okay, Jules is reading over my shoulder and laughing so I'll start zenning out now.

Anyway, on to fun times! Still settling in (no friends), but I've been exploring Brussels on the weekends with Jules (and my sister, but more on that another time). We've done a couple of little day trips, but for the moment, here's what we've seen around town -

Obligatory visit to the Grande Place - most of the time I stay away from the city centre, too many tourists!

While the World Cup was going on, Mannekin Pis was dressed up to support the team

Did you know that Mannekin Pis has a lady friend, Jennekin Pis? How egalitarian

I've visited the Musées Royaux de Beaux Arts before, but today Jules and I became friends, so we can pop in for "free" whenever we want

And see a little squirrel on a leash

As well as visiting the Musées Royaux de Beaux Arts, we also went to the Natural History Museum. This was largely at Jules's prompting, who really really wanted to go see the dinosaurs. I went along in a spirit of girlfriendly martyrdom, but I was actually surprised that it was really cool. The star attraction is definitely the collection of 30 iguanodon skeletons discovered in Belgium in the 19th century, the largest find of iguanodons to date. The skeletons are assembled upright, as was believed correct at the time. Scientists now think that they probably walked on all fours, however the fossils are too fragile to move, so they remain in their original positions. As well as the fossils, there was a lot of interesting dino information, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the visit. Much of the rest of the museum was being renovated, and the mammals section wasn't that interesting anyway, but it's worth a visit just for the dinosaurs.

Some of the iguanodons

Jules giving an iguanodon thumbs up (you can't really see, but they have big spikes on their thumbs)

A reconstruction showing a more accurate depiction

Dino chicken!

A tiny little prehistoric crocodile thingie

These snickering prehistoric sea creatures were quite amusing

Arrrgh! Jules is under attack from a T-Rex!

Me too!

Cow and chicken. I have no idea why they arranged them like this

I think I do a pretty good imitation of a demented koala
Today after visiting the Fine Arts Museum (and, thanks to our new membership, not staying so long that we were exhausted), we enjoyed a stroll down to the pretty Saint Catherine Place, the place to go for fish in Brussels. A trip to the legendary Nordzee/Mer du Nord fishmongers had been on the cards pretty much since I moved here, and although the rain started pouring down basically as soon as we arrived, it did not disappoint. It definitely lived up to its reputation for cheap, tasty street food (or semi street food, since as Mary Kay pointed out on Twitter, you do get proper crockery and cutlery, but there's no indoor seating, you just have to eat standing up at the counter or at a couple of tables). A bowl of fish soup, one portion of shrimp croquettes (i.e. two croquettes) and two glasses of champagne came to €22.50, which considering that it was all very fresh and tasty, I'd call great value for money. And it was nice huddling under the umbrellas with a hot portion of soup while the rain poured down around us. Definitely a good place for a snack if you're in Brussels, I'll be back!