Magical Prague

Prague Castle at night

Prague is without doubt one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  We spent three days in Prague yet I felt we could have spent three months and still not have taken in all the city has to offer.  The detail and beauty of its architecture alone left me reeling.  It seemed that every time I walked by a building, I discovered some new detail I’d missed earlier.  Prone as I am to wax at length on history and architcture, I think this posting will mostly be pictures with  limited commentary, after a brief introduction to the basic historical facts.  (I promise I’ll be brief!)

Prague, or Praha, as the Czechs call it, is the capital of the Czech Republic, formerly of Czechoslovokia. Historians cite remains of paleolithic settlements, but it seems the “modern” history of Prague as a major city and the capital of the Czechs, under whatever titular ruling, began in the late 800’s C.E. Prague Castle with its crown, St. Vitus Cathedral, pictured above at night and below in day, has its origins in the early 10th century.  The castle complex, as you can see, dominates the northern skyline over the Vltava River.  We stayed on the south side, in the “Old Town” in a lovely hotel called the Cloister Inn.  As one can gather from its name, the hotel was once a convent, and what are now spacious hotel rooms were individual cells.  However, there is quite a 20th century twist:  during the Communist era, the Secret Police took over the facility, and converted the religious abodes (pardon the pun) to “holding” cells.  If that is the case, then both nuns and political prisoners had quite rooomy accommodations!

Prague Castle, the Castle District and the "Lesser Town"

The “crown” of the castle is St. Vitus Cathedral, dating to 926 C.E., whose spires dominate an already intimidatingly impressive skyline.  To enter the castle complex, you enter through three courtyard before you find yourself at the doors of the cathedral.

Entry gates to Prague Castle

Third Courtyard, Prague Castle

Third Courtyard, Prague Castle

The castle complex has several other churches, the royal palace, accompanying palaces by noblemen desiring proximity to the king, workmen’s housing, and, of course, the requisit dungeons and torture facility.  Again, I choose to provide photos in place of words, which are insufficient to describe this marvelous world heritage site.

St. George's Basilica at Prague Castle

Sternberg Palace, at Prague Castle complex

Workers' houses on Golden Lane. Franz Kafka, the Czech-born writer, worked during 1916-1917 at # 22

Hanging torture "cage", Daliborka Tower, Prague Castle

Daliborka Tower housed various political prisoners and other malcreants over the years.  The dungeon and torture chambers are quite small but the devices quite horrific.

I believe people were strapped into the device shown above, then left to hang, where gravity took its toll.  Sort of a vertical “rack”.  However, at this point we didn’t have a guide but a less-than-perfect “guide book” , so if anyone cares to comment and/or correct, please feel free.

View from the castle complex.

And now to the south side of the river and “Old Town”.  The heart of Prague, “Old Town” has the  cobbled, twisted streets of  a medieval city and an incredibly rich architectural smorgasbord.  As in most old cities, there is a main plaza, ringed with churches, the town hall, palatial residences and guild halls.

St. Nicholas Church, Main Square, OldTown

Our Lady of Tyn Church, Main Square, OldTown

Beautiful building, now Tourist Info Office

Decorative horses for tourise coaches in main square

Side street off main square shows how narrow a "main" street can be

Kinsky Palace, on main square, now an art museum

Astrological Clock, Old Town Hall, Main Square. Every hour the two upper wooden windows wood open and statuary figures rotated in an allegorical depiction of Death, Vanity and Greed.

Moving allegorical figures on town hall clock tower

Hard to see, but above are some of the moving statues.

Many of the panoramic pictures of Prague are taken from the Charles Bridge.  Michael and I walked this bridge daily, often at twilight, taking in the incredible sights of Prague Castle, the old town’s beauty — and jostling with all the other tourists.  Incredibly, Prague was as crowded as Florence, whether day or night.

This crucifix with Hebrew caption stymied us. Anyone care to translate or explain?

Penguins on the Vltava with Charles Bridge in the background

Prague has a rich Jewish history.  While we never made it into any of the old synagogues that comprised the sprawling Jewish “museum”, we did spend some shoe leather and time walking the old Jewish section, just off the old town plaza.  Some of the buildings were incredibly beautiful.

The old Spanish Synagogue

Jewish Ceremonial Hall, Next to Jewish Cemetary (to the left of the Hall)

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Dresden Impressions

Dresden from the north shore of the Elbe River

Once called “The Florence on the Elbe”, Dresden prior to World War II was notable throughout Europe for its elegant architecture and extensive art collections.  Dresden nearly ceased to exist after the Allies’ devastating bombardment in February, 1945.  But rise again it did, with  massive reconstruction of its old town center of 18th and 19thcentury palaces, grand churches and museums.

We planned a one-night stopover in Dresden en route to Prague from Berlin, and were glad we did.  Arriving too late to take in any museums, we spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening wandering the narrow streets and along the banks of the Elbe, enjoying the sights and sounds of the city.  For us the best part was not just the beautifully reconstructed edifices, but also the many street performances we
happened upon.  Whereas Berlin had its role-playing human statues, historical poseurs and occasional musical buskers, Dresden’s street performances were classical works by some incredibly talented young musicians.  What made their performances unique was the locale – not just the setting of the old city – but by their positioning under old stone archways which amplified and enriched the music.  During the course of the afternoon and evening, we were entertained by cellists, violinists and choral recitals, all, we think, by students from the local academy.
They were all outstanding.

Our favorite performance was that by a trio of two vocalists and a keyboard accompanist.   We joined a crowd of about 90 people standing
in complete awe as this duo sang arias from operas and other well-known
classical pieces.  Entranced, we finally took a table in a cafe on the fringe of the crowd and continued to listen as they continued their performance; in all they sang – and we listened — for about an hour.

Singing under the expansive stone bridge amplified this duo's beautiful voices.

There were, as in every city, a variety of other street performances.  One young woman’s conception of “performing” I found particularly intriguing:  spray painted in silver over every centimeter of her body and encased in a silvery metal gown, she stood utterly motionless on a silver stool in front of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady).  When I dropped some coins in her basket, she gave me a regal nod and a graceful blessing with her arms, then returned to her position in the picture below.

Silver Fairy in Neumarkt

To say that Dresden has been reconstructed is an understatement of just how badly the city was destroyed by first a massive bombardment and the raging fires that followed.  Probably the most remarkable reconstruction within Dresden was of the Frauenkirch cathedral
in the Neumarkt (New Market).  Leveled nearly to the ground, the church was left in ruins by the East German government for decades following WWII as a testament to the horrors of war. Reconstruction of the church did not begin until sometime after the reunification of Germany, and reconsecration only took place in 2005. We learned that whenever possible, the city reused original stones and other materials that survived the devastation.  Unfortunately for us, the church was closed for an evening concert and we were unable to see the interior.

At the time of the bombing of Dresden, on February 13-14, 1945 in the last stages of the war, many people believed that in addition to
eliminating a railway hub and factories, Winston Churchill ordered the
bombardment as punitive retaliation for Germany’s destruction of the old
English city of Coventry and the prolonged bombing of London earlier in the war.  Whether or not this is true, what is fact is that the cross on top of the Frauenkirche was presented to the city of Dresden by Britain in 2002 as a symbol of reconciliation.  Rebuilt and reconsecrated the church now
stands again as one of the most important Protestant churches in all of
Germany, as well as a symbol of rebirth and reconstruction of a nation.

Dresden after February, 1945 Allied bombing

Frauenkirche today, with statue of Martin Luther in front

The "New Market" of Dresden caters well to tourists

One of the nicer walks we took was a stroll across the Elbe
to the north shore of the city.  There we found in all his golden splendor the mounted statue of Frederick August II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.  It’s a very impressive statue, but I couldn’t help but note that it wouldn’t last five minutes in a centrally located park in the States.

In all, we found Dresden pleasant, as well as a notably historic city.  We were glad to have  sampled the music and history of this beautifully reconstructed city.

The Lighter Side of Berlin

Despite my impression that Berlin, overall, seemed architecturally sterile, the city has a wealth of history, and, of course, personalities through the ages.  The city also seems to have its own love of certain persons, as well.  For example, I got the message, loud and clear, that Berlin definitely still has an affinity for John F. Kennedy, even after fifty years:  every street mural told some story or anecdote, or posted some picture of JFK as a visitor to Berlin, negotiating with Khrushchev over the “Berlin Crisis”, or working with Willie Brandt, then mayor of Berlin, and future Chancellor of Germany. Every postcard stand sold cards of JFK in multiple depictions of these scenes, the most famous of him standing and proclaiming, “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”) in a show of solidarity with the torn and beleaguered city.

Just based on the racks of post cards and murals featuring JFK,
Berliners still seem heart and soul to belong to Kennedy.  (Either that or they are shamelessly playing to American tourists’ sentiment.)

Alas, Kennedy’s professed love of Berlin apparently did not extend
to its denizens favorite snack, the curry worst.  To state this beloved Berlin treat is ubiquitous is not an exaggeration. Train depots, U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations, food kiosks, the corner hawker with his sandwich-board contraption bearing a self-contained sausage grill and condiments bar, all featured this unique member of the sausage family.  Essentially, the curry worst is a sausage similar in looks and taste to a hot dog, deep fried, then sliced and soused in ketchup with a heavy dose of curry
powder.  Berliners love their curry worst.  They have restaurants devoted to this deep fried hot dog cum curried ketchup. They even have a museum dedicated to this delicacy”.  Check it out:  http://www.currywurstmuseum.de/en/.

However, JFK’s reaction – much as mine — after sampling this treat went something like this: “I know that now I am a Berliner, but do I ever have to eat this again?”

We tried curry worst twice, and while the second sample was far better (relatively), I couldn’t get over the fact I was eating a deep-fried hot dog smothered with ketchup.  The heavy sprinkling of curry powder did make the experience a tad more palatable, but not by much in my opinion.  Michael, on the other hand loved curry worst.  (What a surprise.  After all, he’s from NYC, the hot dog capital of the world.)

Michael & curry worst

Another gastronomic favorite we found in Berlin was sausage
with sauerkraut, which didn’t come as too much as a surprise.  Sausages of all types, sizes, and Germanic origin were on menus and plates throughout the city.  What did come as a surprise to me was “schnitzel”, which, I discovered, was just about any thin piece of meat covered in hefty batter and deep fried.  It could be described by the waiter as a veal or pork “cutlet” but came out tasting like deep fried mystery meat somewhat akin to “chicken fried steak”.  I can understand why people would prefer their well-seasoned sausages.  No more weiner schnitzel for me!

We spent a fair amount of time in cafés, just watching people, and even dropped into the restored-to-grandeur Hotel Adlon for a pricey
glass of wine.

The restored Hotel Adlon, near the Brandenburg Gate

Unlike in the Netherlands, waiters didn’t strike up conversations with us nor did other customers engage in conversation, for that matter.  Only twice did we have impromptu conversations with Germans:  once with two other patrons in a near-deserted café and then with a young German-Israeli student who was outraged that the U.S. was taking such a beating in world opinion.  His estimation:  “We Europeans owe the U.S. a lot for all they have done for us but tend to sweep it under the rug.  Some people feel it’s not cool to support the U.S. but secretly, they all want to be there.”  Interesting.

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The street performers were one of a kind in Berlin. Whatever their schtick, each “artist” had the requisite up-turned hat, decorative basket, even a bucket or shoe soliciting contributions to the “artist’s” retirement fund.   Capitalism is reigning quite readily in Berlin.

There were the (now ubiquitous to tourist centers) human statues – individuals, painted andcostumed as anything from an historic to fantasy figures, as well as actual performers of all sorts, jugglers or musicians or balloon artists.  At every historical point of interest there were one or more people dressed in costume or uniform all willing to pose for or with you – as long as you made a “donation” of a Euro or two for the
privilege.   There were the silly:  chickens and bears roaming the Brandenburg plaza.  And there was my favorite:  a woman dressed as a Soviet soldier, “ice fishing” in a sewer grate in front of the U.S. Embassy, moaning a lugubrious Russian tune.  She perked up considerably once you dropped a coin in her “fish” bucket, and while she didn’t break out into joyful song (she was after all, imitating a Soviet soldier), she did belt out a few bars of something that sounded less like a dirge.

American GIs "guarding" Checkpoint Charlie

German "soldiers" at the Brandenburg Gate

These tourists actually paid to have their picture taken with a chicken....

And my favorite:

Lugubrious Soviet soldier ice fishing

And then there was the sign I spotted near Checkpoint Charlie: Barbier Bar.  Michael and I immediately walked over, hoping to hoist a glass of wine in a bar named after my very own, illustrious family.  Alas.  It wasn’t a bar at all but a hair cuttery.  I had to abandon familial delusions of grandeur or minimally finding a long-lost cousin. (Point of
information here to those of you who only know me as “Rolnick”: “Barbier”, my family name, is actually a very common last name, meaning “barber”, as in s/he who cuts hair.)

All in all, we liked Berlin, and appreciate it as a city rich with history as well as so much potential for the future.  It is a young city, perhaps a little raw and rough at times, but definitely a youthful city whose culture and activity seem below the average tourist’s radar, and definitely take place mostly at night – and into the wee hours.  But even if Berliners play hard and act tough, they are also realistic, standing with feet firmly planted and facing forward, saying, “Come on! “ to the rest of  Europe.

Berlin Impressions

Brandenburg Gate

Berlin came full of surprises for me.  Despite having read the guide books, I was unprepared, mentally, for the newness, the raw edge to the city, and what seemed an architecturally sterile atmosphere.
Intellectually, I knew most of the city had been rebuilt after being
bombed to smithereens in WWII, and what the Allied bombers didn’t destroy in the eastern end of the city, the East Germans finished by leveling huge swathes of land to create a “dead zone” around the Berlin Wall.  I am no big fan of post-WWII architecture, so the modern architecture of Berlin, coupled with the remaining Soviet-style,
block-buildings of former East Berlin, left me unimpressed.  With some lovely exceptions, the area in which we stayed in the former East Berlin was all constructed within the last 20-30 years.  Nearby Alexanderplatz, the “most visited spot in Berlin”, according to one guide, truly reflects the East German-style:  an all concrete plaza surrounded by concrete block buildings — very sterile.

Thankfully, much of “old” Berlin survived both the Allied bombs and the former DDR (East Germany). The Brandenburg Gate reigns magnificently at the eastern end of the beautiful Tiergarten, the Reichstag has been restored and amplified with a glass dome, and Charlottenburg still retains its old world charm.

Bode Museum

Berlin Cathedral

Lovely old building along the Spree River

We spent a lot of time just walking around the city, occasionally taking
the S and U Bahn trains to the further sections, although we also did the usual tourist “thing” by taking both a city bus tour as well as river boat  tour.  Both were interesting and informative, and we engaged in some spirited conversation with both an American expat and a young German student whose knowledge of U.S. history and current politics was
surprisingly excellent.

No visit to Berlin would be complete without at least stopping by Checkpoint Charlie, the mosst famous of the former border gates between the U.S. sector and East Berlin.  For those of you who remember the television footage of the days leading to the “fall” of the Berlin Wall, much of the crowds from West Berlin had gathered either at Checkpoint Charlie or the section of the Wall next to the Brandenburg Gate.  Tall murals line the sidewalks of several streets coming into Checkpoint Charlie, telling the story of the division of Berlin following WWII, the Soviet domination of East Germany, the crisis over the construction of the Wall, and highlighting several of the East Germans who lost their lives trying to escape to the West.

Checkpoint Charlie itself seems almost a child’s playhouse, it is so small.  The white clapboard hut stands by itself in the median of a busy Berlin street.  At first glance I thought it was still being manned by U.S. military personnel, but then I realized that the individuals dressed in imitations of U.S. WWII uniforms were just more street “actors” trying to skim a Euro or two off the tourists by posing for pictures in front of the guardhouse. More on this form of “entertainment” later.

Checkpoint Charlie

We did spend one afternoon strolling through the largely residential
section of western Berlin known as Charlottenburg.  This large neighborhood was once the heart of old West Berlin, but lost its popularity to the novelty of East Berlin shortly after the Wall came down.  It is still a
popular residential and shopping district for those who can afford it, and much of its charm (to me)is due to the fact that it was less heavily bombed than the central and eastern sectors of the city, and thus retains a great number of architecturally historical buildings. Among the loveliest is the 17-18th century Charlottenburg Palace with its formal gardens and acres of attached woodlands along the River Spree. The Schloss (castle or palace) was originally intended as a summer residence by Queen Sophie Charlotte, wife of Prussia king Frederick I; as you can see, the good queen’s intentions swiftly grew out of hand.

Charlottenburg Palace and portion of the gardens

One museum I feel is worth recommending to any of you planning trips to Berlin.  The fairly new “Topography of Terror” museum is a block away from Checkpoint Charlie.  It is free and has exhibits both inside and
outside, where they incorporate a bit of the former Wall into the exterior exhibits.  The interior exhibits, in both German and English, start the tale of “terror” by detailing the rise of Nazism, the developments of the camps, on through the end of WWII and the prosecution of several Nazi war criminals.  I was impressed at how this museum’s exhibits did not at all shy away from the issue of citizen complicity in the Nazi witch hunts of first their political enemies, then the long list of “undesirables”, from Jews to gypsies, homosexuals and the mentally disabled.

The effect of the exhibits was overwhelming and, quite frankly, we could not absorb it all in just a couple of hours. It will definitely be on my list of places to revisit upon a return to Berlin.  I walked away with the sense
that in this museum, at least, Germany was not going to let the past be swept under the rug.  And the horrors of the Nazi “terror” was not lost on the visitors. In looking around at the mostly German crowd, or eavesdropping on any conversations, you could see the shock and revulsion in virtually each visitor’s face or in their strained whispers.
And the photographs were not graphic; it was the text of the exhibits,
simply laying out fact after fact, that seemed to stun and overwhelm the crowds, as it did me.

Topography of Terror's outside exhibit with remnants of the Berlin Wall

In reflecting about our experiences in Berlin, I found that I was a lot more comfortable than I had thought I would be in the city and with Berliners.  Berlin is definitely a young city and a city for young people.
Forty-five percent of the population is single, and much of the city’s
buildings are less than 20 years old.  To me there definitely was a progressive vibe, a sense of moving forward, of young people saying, “This is our world, we are taking it from here.  Yes, we as Germans have a horrible 20th century history.  But that is our parents’ and grandparents’ history – not ours.  We will not deny the past, but Berlin is our future and we are moving forward, not living in the past.”  And I really can’t argue with that.

Bruges

I’ve always felt that making diminutive comparisons between cities is unfair:  “like a little Greenwich Village,” or “an earlier reincarnation of…” (fill in the blank).  In all my travels I have always found some
element, sometimes intangible, that helps distinguish the character of one city or town from a similar one.  At first brush, Bruges, or Brugge (“Broogkh-uh” in its Dutch pronunciation) could be dismissed as “Little Amsterdam” and what an injustice that would be.  Yes, Bruges has picturesque canals lined with old houses and buildings, the cobbled streets are  narrow and twisting, but that is where any similarities remain.

Bruges has a relaxed atmosphere and slower tempo that Amsterdam could never achieve.  Despite being there on a weekend, the crowds were manageable – and the absence of bicycles, buses and trams was noticeable and welcome.  Compact and calm, Bruges felt relaxing in a way a larger city could  never be.  Granted, we never left the old town center of Bruges and I realize our experiences would have been vastly different had we ventured further afield. But we were content to wander afoot the main Markt (market plaza) with its historic buildings and wheel-spokes of side streets, take a canal boat tour, and sample the local cuisine and liquid offerings (translate:  Belgian beer).

One side of the old town market square.

Previously I’d discussed our discovery and new-found love of Belgian beer from our trip to Brussels, so I’ll skip being repetitious on that score.  (See the posting, “How do you spell Brussels:  B-i-e-r.”)  But we did indulge in mussels, which seem to be – along with frites (“French
fries”) – the national foods of Belgium.

Both in Brussels and here in Bruges, we saw far more advertisements for
mussels in all possible gastronomic presentations and frites with all possible combination of accompanying sauces, than I could possibly imagine (although mayonnaise was by far the most popular frites sauce).

“Moules au gratin” (mussels in cheese sauce) may not sound like an appropriate choice for someone coming off a week-long stomach virus,
but choose it I did with no long term consequences.  The immediate sensations, however, were purely delightful.  It was, quite simply, a savory, delicious dish.  I hardly wanted to share.  By far the most
popularly selected mussels dish by other diners was a bucket of mussels, usually steamed in a simple white wine and garlic sauce.  Had I chosen this, the bucket would have come with a mound of fries (about the
equivalent of two super-sized McDonald’s fries) with about two cups of
mayonnaise on the side.  I didn’t think either my stomach or my waistline could tolerate all that grease.

Frites – the prefix “French” never finds its way onto the frites menu – seem to be a national obsession in both the Netherlands as well as Belgium.  However, IMHO Bruges takes the potato when it comes to obsessions and frites.  While there are stores in both countries devoted to selling only this one “food” item, only Bruges (to the best of my knowledge) has a whole museum devoted to fries. Yup.  The Frites Museum.

But on this short trip to Bruges, we stuck to more pedestrian pursuits with a leisurely canal boat tour, which I highly recommend, taking in the portrait museum, and exploring the old town on foot.  The advantage of a canal boat tour is you can cover a large amount of territory from a unique perspective, often from the reverse of the “face” of the city or town, as well as, hopefully, a bit of local history.  Our little canal tour was no exception, providing us a glimpse into the small, beautifully groomed back
gardens of the town’s mansions and hotels. However, my favorite sighting was of this very relaxed canine who chose to enjoy the sights in pillowed comfort:

The two oldest bridges in Bruges, dating back 500 years.

Small but lovely garden -- with conservatory as well.

We could have also chosen to climb to the top of the old town hall tower, but just 24 hours past being horribly ill, I declined.  I remember climbing it as a child and do recall the views as quite impressive. The climb, however, is not for the faint of heart or out of shape, as the 366 steps are narrow, steep and the stairwell a bit claustrophobic.

Instead, we remained, feet-planted, in the Markt, or grand plaza, watching an enterprising New Zealander attempting to entertain the crowd with her balloon-on-a-spoon balancing antics (takes all kinds) and unicycling
finale.  Certainly beat the gorillas at the Dam in Amsterdam.

Michael and I ended the day in Bruges with a glass of wine at an outdoor café in the Burg, another picturesque square, then joined the throngs for a free evening concert of what seemed to be local rock bands.  The crowds were singing and swaying in accompaniment to the music, largely covers, and all had a good time, including the two of us.  I only wish I had been feeling better, but we enjoyed Bruges enough to vow, in a paraphrase of our disgraced California governor, “We’ll be back!’

Afterword on hotel accomodations:  We supposed to stay at the Hotel Bourgoensch Hof, located about 1 block from the town center. I had chosen this hotel due to its location, fantati reviews, and reasonable price, which included breakfast.  Due to me confusing the date, when we arrived o a Saturday, we had no room.  However, the owner very kindly let  us stay in their new B&B suite a few blocks away, still honoring  the paid reservation for the hotel, and, providing us breakfast at the hotel the next morning.  I’d say you cannot beat hospitality and incredible service such as this, particularly since I was at fault, not the hotel.  The Bourgoensch itself looked great and the location can’t be beat.  Not only is it one block from the main square, it is a beautifully renovated15th century house on a lovely canal.  Breakfast is included, and the buffet is quite nice.  We plan to go back and definitey will stay at the Bourgoensch Hotel.  Definitely a thumbs up for the Bourgoensch.

Hotel Bourgoensch Hof

How do you spell “Brussels”? B-i-e-r!

It  would be a great injustice to Belguim in general and Brussels in particular to rave solely about the incredible beer produced by this small country, so, I’ll just have to save the best for last in this blog.  After all, not everyone automatically thinks of Belgian beer when they ruminate on Brussels.

Michael and I recently went on an excursion to Brussels.  We should have known that plans were going awry when we had to de-train in South Holland due to an accident ahead — and found we were on the wrong train to begin with.  Eventually we made it to Brussels, and after getting royally lost in the two blocks between the central train station and our hotel, we managed to find our way to La Grande Place, or the main plaza and heart of Brussels.  It is truly an amazing spectacle.  Here are some of the buildings ringing the huge square:

That's Michael in foreground

Sunday flower market on the Place

Brussels’ historic center is like most medieval-era cities:  the streets are twisted, narrow, and change names frequently.  What amazed me to learn about Brussels and Belguim were the following:

1.  As first a town, then city, Brussels has been in existence over 1,000 years.

2.  Brussels is the headquarters of the European Economic Community,  and the peopleyou see definitely reflect the multi-national nature of the city.  Over  a third of its million-strong population are non-Belgian.

3.  I thought the cobblestones of Amsterdam were bad — the Belgian blocks are definitely ankle-murderers!  Here’s an idea of how easy it is to get stuck between the gaps in the ancient  stones. (My foot is not a photographic error, but there to provide some perspecitve of how big some of how easily a high heeled shoe could become trapped in these pitfalls.)

Stilleto heels are NOT a good option!

4.  People really do eat “Belgian waffles”, and with just about any type of gooey, surgary, or chocla-ty topping(s)  available.

5. Belguim is not the world’s leader in the production of chocolate candies (the U.S. is, due to sheer size alone), nor is it the biggest consumer — Switzerland is.  Could have fooled me.  There were chocolate stores everywhere.  More than beer bars.

Mannekin Pis

6.  And what would a trip to Brussels be without a visit to the “mannekin pis”, or “little pissing boy”, who delights his fans by peeing into a basin on a busy street corner. This may not be the original statue, which dates back over 400 years but it is beloved by natives and tourists alike.  In recent decades the city has authorized a “dresser” for the statue who decks out the statue in one of its 500 outfits on almost a daily basis.

In the city museum, there is a whole section devoted to this littly bronze tyke, providing some of his history and displaying a number of his costumes that have been donated by whole countries as well as individuals.  Our hands down favorite was this one:

7.  And, in conclusion, a few words about Belgian beer. Belguim has about 125 breweries, producing about 800 standard beers; if you add one-time beers to the count, it comes to about 8,700 types of beer.  Only Germany, France (the French?) and the UK have more breweries.  Belgians on average drink 93 liters of beer per year.

And our personal opinion:  Belgian beer is simply the best beer we’ve ever tasted.  Neither Michael nor I are big beer drinkers, favoring red wine as our libation of choice.  However, in Utrecht we’d been introduced to a few different Belgian beers and were won over. Big time. In Brussels, we fell into the indulgent habit of sipping a late afternoon beer in a sidewalk cafe while reflecting on the passersby.  Michael favors witte (“white”) beer, while I prefer the dark.  Since leaving Brussels, we’ve contined the habit, often stopping off at a nearby cafe for a late afternoon, pre-prandial Belgian beer while we watch people pass by or hang out with their friends in the cafes.  A very relaxing way to round out the day!

A few “beer pictures”:

The Beer Planet Bar

A "beer tasting shop"

Just one of many beer shops displaying its wares

As I mentioned, we’d been introduced to Belgian beer by friends in Utrecht.  The site of our indoctrination was, quite ironically, a local establishment known (to ex-pats) as “The Beer Church”.  Yup.  A former church converted into a Belgian beer-drinking establishment. And I do mean the emphasis is on Belgian beer — the bar even flies the Belgian flag outside.  It seems not one patron bears any qualms about the former church’s current use.  Au contraire.  As one friend put it, “Finally! A religious establishment dedicated to something useful and rewarding — beer!”  So to finish off this posting, here are a few pics of that famous (or infamous) establishment.

The Beer Church

Happy customers at the Beer Church

"Delirium Tremens", a popular dark beer, brewed since the mid-1600s.

Cultural Adjustments

Cultural Differences Can Be More Than Amusing

Michael and I have been living in the Netherlands for nearly five weeks now and we’ve become accustomed to the essentials: we watch out for speed demon bicyclists – they’re everywhere!; we can easily distinguish between the 1- and 2-Euro coins; and we can read the European
train time tables with relative ease and little mishap (no small feat!) However – and you knew that was coming – there are a number of cultural differences that we’ve noted. Some are amusing, some perplexing or frustrating, others – being Dutch – eminently practical — yet most have added to our ultimate enjoyment of living in the Netherlands.

The practical

Cash, not credit, is king. I was warned to have plenty of cash on hand, as many stores will not accept credit cards, and what a useful tip that was. Like most Americans, I was accustomed to paying for virtually everything by credit card: groceries, gas, haircuts, vet bills, movie tickets.

Not here. Grocery stores won’t take credit, and most other stores won’t either.  And where they do, there can be a hefty fee tacked on for using credit. For example, our initial hotel bill would have been 15% higher if we’d charged it.  So having cash on hand is essential, and probably better in terms of not over-extending yourself. And, of course, geldermats (ATMs) are ubiquitous.

 

The public urinal.  I’d grown up with seeing public urinals in France, so I was quick to recognize in them in Amsterdam and Utrecht. I also noticed that as in the one pictured below, they are often situated near large bars and cafés. Michael pointed out an oddity, though. He said that when he goes into men’s restrooms in restaurants, there are no urinals, but individual, completely enclosed toilet stalls. So, here’s the dichotomy: open air urinals which leave little to the imagination as to what the guy is doing, and, the completely closed off little pooping-and-pissing cabana.

Go figure!

He's not just singing in the rain...

There had to be something I didn’t like!

No ice, no free water. Water is not served automatically in restaurants, and when requesting water, your choices “with gas” or “without gas” — but “no charge” is not an option. In fact, a small bottle of water can cost  as much as a glass of beer. What is also remarkable (to me), is that the bottled water is rarely cold, and even more scarce are ice cubes. The eating and drinking establishments as a whole almost never serve you any drinks – water, sodas, tea, etc. – with ice in them.
And a couple of times when I have received my pricey bottle of water, the
accompanying glass had one, lone ice cube in it. One ice cube.

People who know me well are aware that I drink a lot of ice water. And I mean ice-cold water, as in filled-with-ice-cubes cold water. So, I have to admit, no ice and no free water has been a cultural adjustment for me. Solution? I went out and bought two icecube trays.

The charming

Hanging out is a national occupation.
Everyone knows that Americans work way too much. We work ridiculous hours, and in some professions the 60 hour+ workweek is de rigeur.
Contrast this idiotic workaholic predilection with the Dutch: does anyone work an 8-hour day? From about 11 a.m. until after 9 p.m. cafés and restaurants are packed with people, especially if it’s a nice day out. On a sunny day, outdoor lounge space is at a premium. In fact, I wonder where the restaurants store all their tables and chairs when it’s raining. Perhaps they have the opposite of a giant dehydration machine: when the sun’s out or the temperature rises above 18°C (65°F), café tables and chairs mushroom out of the sidewalks and plazas as people come flocking. And what’s really nice is the relaxed attitude of the servers: you want to nurse one cup of coffee or one small beer for the next 2 hours – no problem!

And people especially love to hang out by the Oude Gracht (Old Canal) in Utrecht for both drinks and dinner.

Michael is at lower right in blue shirt, back to camera.

Plaze with about 7 cafes near where we live

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Street performances. Nearly all of the street performances we’ve seen have been in Amsterdam, and they have ranged from amazingly good to the truly awful. In fact, one singer and her accompanying keyboardist were so bad that the café patrons didn’t just ignore them, they booed them. Tough audience!   Probably the most delightful “street” performance was by a 20-odd person orchestra on a train station in Breda. Totally an unexpected surprise. Betcha you’ve never seen that in the States!

Here’s a few performance “artists” from Amsterdam:

I wanted to scream after watching this guy for several minutes

Break dancing on the Leidesplein

If you can figure out what these guys were doing, you get a banana!

Brazilian Martial Arts -- these guys were flying!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The three-kiss greeting. The traditional Dutch greeting among friends
is three pecks on alternating cheeks. No one can explain why or how this customcame about, and why three kisses. But this is the normal greeting  among friendsupon arrival and departure.

 

Only in the Netherlands…

Parking violations are taken way too seriously!

We happened upon a vehicle being towed at the Nieuwe Markt plaza in Amsterdam. Given the narrow streets, Dutch have developed a unique method of hauling away vehiclesvthat are broken down, in accidents, or – as in this case – illegally parked.

And the fines for leaving your car in a no parking zone?
According to one of the policemen at this scene, the parking fine is about €70, plus another €400 for the tow fees, and then another €50 per day for each day your impounded vehicle is unclaimed. And, he added, if you try to abandon your vehicle, the city will sell it and keep the money, but you will still owe all the accumulated fines. Citizens will be tracked down to pay up and tourists can’t leave the country until they settle their fines. Good incentive to own a bicycle.

 

In a city with about 100 kilometers of canals…..

If you think about it, having a DHL delivery boat in Amsterdam
makes a whole lot of sense!

 

And the real whopper: the “Code Blue” bicycle.  Yup.
Michael went with his medical students for a tour of the ER at the
University of Utrecht hospital. The physician giving the tour pointed out a
bicycle with little cart attachments. She explained that whenever a “code blue” (cardiac arrest) occurred in the hospital, one of the ER physicians  hops on the bike and “pedal like crazy” to get to the afflicted patient, crash cart and all.

I wish he’d gotten a picture…

That’s all for now!