Saturday, August 27, 2016

1 hundred dogs, 1 hundred dogs... 1 hundred dogs!

(Does anyone else remember 2 Stupid Dogs, or just me?)

2016 was my 7th trip to the Vitiloire wine festival in Tours and Jules's 3rd. Every year since the first, I've managed to forestall a trip to Chenonceau by promising "maybe next year". This year, I couldn't get out of it any more, so we duly made a detour to the château on our way to Tours.

Don't get me wrong, Chenonceau is one of the fabled châteaux of the Loire that people dream their whole lives of visiting. It's just this was my fourth visit (trip one, two and three), so you can fairly count it crossed off the old bucket list. But Jules had never been, so finally we went along to tick it off his list too.

They have actually opened up a new part of the château since my last trip - the second story of the bridge across the Loire that you can see in the photo above. It had quite a lot more information on the history of the château through the ages, so trip not wasted. My favourite sign in the new exhibition:

"Hey, fish! Your mum smells like cabbage!"

Other than that, it's fair to say we did a relatively whirlwind tour, trying to dodge the inevitable coach-loads of Russian and Chinese tourists.

From Chenonceau, it was on to the main event in Tours. Our group this year was a little smaller, with my sister and my friend Caroline having moved to New Zealand (in separate incidents), but my sisters' friends have got such a taste for it that several of them came along anyway! I didn't go quite as crazy as the year before (since we still had a few bottles left over), but we acquitted ourselves pretty well. 

Ready for wine

Me and the British (slash Kiwi) contingent

Mel very proud of her wine purchases and her wine boy who had to run around after her carrying them

As you can see, the weather for the festival was pretty good, but by Sunday evening, the heavens had opened, and on Monday it rained solidly the entire way home across France and Belgium. I don't know if it registered with people outside France, but that week saw flooding across big areas of the country. We were lucky to get home, because the next day I saw friends on facebook posting pictures of some of the motorways we travelled home on completely washed out.

So it wasn't the greatest weather to go and do a partially outdoor activity, but we forged ahead with our plans to visit another of the dwindling list of major châteaux of the Loire I haven't yet been to. Namely, Cheverny, the inspiration behind Marlinspike Hall in the Tintin comics.

Walking in the footsteps of Tintin (and Snowy!)

Hergé lopped off the wings on the sides to make it a bit less grand
I promptly forgot pretty much everything about the inside of the château, but looking back through my photos, it has some pretty sumptuous rooms. It's not huge, but I'd rather a small but pretty château than a huge empty one, (looking at you, Palais des Papes). 

The hall was covered in vignettes from Don Quixote

Apart from the Tintin collection (assiduously promoted in the gift shop and also in an exhibition that we didn't visit since you had to pay extra), the big attraction of Cheverny is seeing the feeding of the more than one hundred hunting dogs which live there. We got in position fairly early, but even with the rain we had to stand way over on one side, so I imagine it gets really crowded on a nice day in the middle of summer. As it was, I got constantly dripped on by the umbrella of the woman next to me, but at least we got a reasonable view of the dogs.

There was a lot of waiting around, and then more time spent herding the dogs out of the yard to clean it, spreading the food, and then the master made them all line up patiently for a while before they were allowed to eat. The dogs were pretty well-behaved up to that point, and then when they got the signal to go eat, it was a total scrum. They all climbed over each other to get to the food, some even doing a comical handstand over the backs of the other dogs to make sure they got some. Which was just as well, since in under a minute, all the meat was gone. There was at least one thin and presumably timid dog who got fed separately to fatten her up, but otherwise, you snooze you lose.

The dogs and their master before feeding time

My wet sleeve and I go in for a pat

Waiting to get fed (video doesn't work on mobile, sadly)

 As usual, it was a great blend of visiting new and familiar tourist attractions, catching up with friends, and - of course - drinking a lot of wine. I especially like the new little tradition we've had the last couple of years of stopping off somewhere on the way to/from Tours. It really turns a long weekend into a proper mini holiday.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

A weekend in Miffytown: Utrecht, The Netherlands

Back in July, to celebrate a long weekend due to Belgium's national day we naturally headed out of the country. Both of us fancied something low-key, preferably without having to fly, so we decided it was high time to check out a bit of Belgium's northern neighbour. There are any number of interesting cities within a few hours' drive (The Hague, Delft, Leiden, Maastricht, Rotterdam to name a few) but after some deliberation, we settled on Utrecht. Basically just because it seemed quite a pleasant place.

On the way, we took a small detour through Baarle-Hertog/Baarle-Nassau, a place I've wanted to visit for some time. If you google Baarle, you'll find all manner of enthusiastic articles that basically make it seem like a wonderland of geographical oddities. Basically, although the whole area is surrounded by the Netherlands, you have scattered bits which belong to Belgium, and within these are further Dutch enclaves. It looks like this:

These articles make the town sound super-exciting: you have a restaurant where the clients all have to switch tables at a certain time of night because the Dutch side can stay open longer than the Belgian! You have houses which have their kitchen in Belgium and their dining room in the Netherlands! The insanity! Truth is, it's actually a pretty boring place. We thought you'd see borders running back and forth all over the town centre, but, although there were some, they're just lines on the road. There's a reason all the photos in those articles look pretty much the same. It's hard to find a spot that isn't just the border running across some tarmac and terminating in a garage wall with a wheelie bin next to it. Anyway, fun enough to visit for half an hour on the way to somewhere else, but if we had driven out there specifically I would have been a grumpy bunny.

Jules astride the border
Utrecht proved to be pleasant indeed. It still had the vibe of a laidback student town even in the middle of summer. Its main feature are the canals running through the centre, which are the perfect places to go for a drink and to watch the world go by.

Enjoying a drink right next to the water 

The canal area was also a prime location for Pokémon Go players. This was maybe the week after the game was released in Europe, and there were a crazy amount of people playing outside on the fine summer evenings.

Including me!
The Dom, or cathedral, is another prominent feature. The inside of the cathedral itself was not that exciting, but next to it is a really pretty cloister garden we liked a lot. You can climb up the Dom tower, but only as part of a guided tour that takes like an hour, so on the first day we were too tired and then the weather was not as good on the other days, so we didn't bother. The Dom tower is actually no longer attached to the cathedral proper, because the section in between was destroyed in a storm in the 17th century.

View of the Dom tower

Canal and Dom tower by night

The beautiful cloister garden

Heading in to the cloisters

The only thing of note we really did was a visit to the Catharijneconvent museum, which focuses on religious art. Long-time followers of the blog will know I'm a sucker for that sort of thing. It had a beautiful treasury, full of reliquaries and monstrances and such things, and a nice collection of paintings through the ages. Probably not for everyone, but nice enough.

"You wanna go? I'll take you down mofo!"

When he tries to sneak out without waking you up

A creepy modern version of the Pietà
Finally, Utrecht is the birthplace of Miffy, the adorable little bunny! Did you know Miffy's real name is Nijntje? We didn't make it to the Miffy museum but we saw Miffy's traffic light!

High excitement! All in all, Utrecht is a great place for a short break if you're looking to eat and drink and take it easy. Pro tip: we left the car in a park and ride outside the city which cost 5€ for the whole time we were there, plus a day bus pass for both of us. Versus parking in the centre near our hotel, which was 30€ overnight! As you might expect from a Dutch city, the place is car-unfriendly and bike-friendly. Try not to get run over!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Lucky (move) number 13

So I worked out when preparing my "Decade in Review" that I've moved 13 times in the last ten years. Oof! In fairness, most of the early moves just involved me and as much stuff as I could carry (which, contrary to my father's nay-saying, was around 40 kilos). But on the other hand, all except two moves (in Tours and Brussels) have involved changing cities and/or countries. That is, how you say, a pain in the arse no matter how much stuff you have.

The most recent move was prompted by the boyfriend moving in last October. My old place was 45 sq metres (I think? Like my glasses prescription, this is something everyone else seems to know - for themselves - but I always forget), which was great for a single gal plus cat but not so much when Jules moved in and inconveniently insisted on bringing things like books and clothes with him.

So we gave notice just before our trip to NZ and once we got back the hunt was on to find a new place before the end of May. We actually only saw three places, ending up taking an apartment one street over from our old place. I would have liked having a direct transport link to work, but otherwise, we know and like the neighbourhood, so it made sense to stick with this area.

Plus the new place ticked pretty much all the other boxes. It's way bigger, a duplex (two floors) around 140 sq m (although a lot of space is lost to things like the stairs and the sloping roof on the top floor. Talking of which, a slopey roof was, unsurprisingly, not one of our requirements, but we are very pleased to be on the top two floors. As my sister can testify, in the old place a demon child lived above us who loved nothing more than to rampage up and down on our ceiling making as much noise as humanly possible. So now we get to be the ones annoying the downstairs neighbours, with no retribution. The third big problem with the old place was that it only had a small fridge with a freezer compartment. Even the motorhome we stayed in in New Zealand had a bigger fridge! It was a real pain having to shop basically every other day since we couldn't have much frozen food and anything big like a big bag of spinach basically took up 1/4 of the fridge space. Lastly, it met the terrace and bathtub requirements, so pretty much a home run.

New terrace. On, like, the only sunny weekend this summer, in which we spent 90% of the time indoors moving house
Finally, a move with a furniture lift! I'm so easily impressed

Bob surveying the empty (old) apartment. He has been a super trooper with the move! Even knew how to go up and down the stairs from day one!
 A bigger place meant more furniture, so we have spent the last couple of months busily shopping at IKEA and assembling our purchases. We had the idea to get a nice mid-century sideboard and found a few in antique shops that were gorgeous (and expensive!) but we didn't get our act together to buy one before the move, and then afterwards there would be the problem of how to get it into the apartment. It would basically mean hiring a lift, with all the hassle and the expense that involves. So, sadly, we stuck with our all-IKEA decor since that, at least, we can haul up the narrow stairs ourselves.

The light in the kitchen was the worst. Ugly as hell and hung down too low

We switched it out and added extra bench space - the right-hand side is all new, from IKEA (I'm sorry I didn't take a before picture of the kitchen, because this was where we made probably the biggest change)

Then the finishing touch (almost, there's a couple of bits and pieces we still haven't sorted out) was the long-awaited arrival of a few boxes of things from New Zealand. Mostly books and a few paintings, this was stuff I'd left behind 7 years ago when moving to Europe. I'm so excited to have all my old university books back, many with notes and highlights, all reminding me of my student days. I don't tend to over-sentimentalise books too much (it irritates me if you see some craft project using books online, like a découpage or something, and all the comments are HOW DARE YOU DESECRATE THIS BOOK? Yeah, this mass-market paperback of which a billion copies exist. It's not a sacred object. End rant) but yeah, my uni books are still special to me!

It was like Christmas when all my stuff arrived from NZ
The finished product

I still dream of a room with floor-to-celing built-in bookcases. But a wall of Billys (already full!) is a start

My (and Jules's) preciouses
The week of the move, we had just come back from Berlin (I swear, I can't move without sticking an international trip in the mix, just to stress myself out), and that weekend was also the Brussels Food Truck festival. The evening before M-Day, we snuck out after a full day of packing to get some fresh air and sunshine and conveniently have dinner without needing any of our packed-away utensils. Win win! This year, for security reasons, it was held in the Park Royale - which was actually great on a hot day, with plenty of shade and grass to lounge about on.

It was a popular event on a Friday evening

Jules tucks in

Peko peko was one of our favs from last year

Wine and some sort of fried cheese-chorizo lollipop makes a happy Gwan

This is actually a different park. But another nice day (rare)
So, as moves go, #13 was relatively stress-free. It's been fun decorating and fixing up the place and we're pretty happy so far. Signed a three-year lease, so long may that continue!