Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Before taking up all your time with my blatherings, a quick note: should you not want to read all my painstakingly wrought observations and witticisms and want to skip straight to the pretty pictures, you may do so here.
And now, on to describing a trip that is now two weeks old...
Given that Amynah has been spending much of the last month or so planning for her family’s 8-country, 3-continent visit next month, I was put in charge of planning for the Maastricht visit. This consisted pretty much of e-mailing Babet, booking a couple of hotels online and reserving the car.
Actually researching what there was to do in any of the places we were planning to visit sort of escaped my attention. Therefore, on arrival in Antwerp, we were a little flummoxed as to what there was to do there. All we knew about Antwerp consisted of what little we’d seen of it in diamond heist movies. Even then, those heists usually occur pretty early on in the film with very little time spent in the city.
Thus unarmed, we ventured into town. As is my wont, we immediately located the Cathedral and wandered inside.
The cathedral is home to some pretty impressive wood carving – despite the fact that I am unable to capture the true feel of dark wood carving, I futilely took some pictures of the row of confessional booths, each guarded by a three-dimensional Apostle and their fictional female doppelgangers.
The pulpit was also something to see, supported by four men each representing one of the then-known continents (these were as politically correct as you might expect) and topped by an angel blowing a trumpet (and showing a remarkable dedication to his music, given that he also appeared to plunging to his death).
Here we also discovered that Antwerp was home to Peter Paul Rubens (I would love to say “We were reminded” rather than “discovered” but you, gentle reader, have been too good to me for me to start lying to you now). There were three enormous triptychs there by him. As Amynah pointed out, it was refreshing to see art like this in the milieu for which it was intended.
After some aimless wandering, we headed to the Plantin-Moretus Museum, the one-stop ancestral home/publishing house/printing facility/bookshop of the Reformation-era Plantin-Moretus family. Here, we saw more of Rubens oeuvre, three second-run Gutenberg bibles and a lot of old printing presses.
There was also a copy-editors room, which our audio guide solemnly informed us was a respected and intellectually rigorous profession. As a writer whose blameless prose has been the recipient of numerous unprovoked attacks by these red-ink spewing monsters, I feel somewhat differently (mind you, as an editor whose ass has been saved numerous times by these angels with eagle-eyes, I feel will grudgingly admit they perhaps deserved the best office in the building – bigger even than that of the proprietor).
After the museum, Amynah did some shopping and we grabbed a bite to eat in that most Belgian of establishments, “The Sicilian Pizza House” (before the food people ask – yes, we also bought chocolates and waffles. The latter were far too sweet for my taste).
To wrap up the evening, we decided to cross the river, which is accomplished via the Saint Anna tunnel a 500-metre pedestrian/bike passage that travels under the Scheldt.
After a desultory snapping of the town (European cities don’t offer much in the way of skylines) we caught the tram back to our hotel. And what was the movie playing in our hotel, situated in a city world famous for its trade in precious stones? Why “Blood Diamond,” of course.
Next day was Brussels. I will be up front here: I had heard nothing good about Brussels from anyone, ever. I was probably predisposed to not much like the place.
Brussels did itself no favours, however. We drove in, immediately losing the ring road and ending up in the middle of the city. Our directions were therefore useless, though we appeared to be on a main road. I turned off it and asked a pedestrian for directions to Toisson D’Or Street. He gave us a look as if to indicate we were practically in the wrong city, and told us to turn around and drive to a completely different quarter.
The town, the name of which means "House in the marsh." Who the heck builds their city in a swamp? Belgians, that's who.
We got back on the main road (which, for simplicity’s sake, I will call Waterloo) and headed back. Except it was blocked for construction now, though it had been clear five minutes before. So we followed the rest of the traffic into the city, until it became clear that no one else had any intention of circumventing the detour and were evidently driving to Holland.
So, we stopped in a gas station, and she told us we were actually close to our destination. All we had to do was head back to Waterloo St (which, though some weird space-time flux I’ve noticed European cities are capable of, was now around the corner, despite us having driven three kilometers since the detour) and make an incredibly complex series of turns and we’d be at our destination of Toisson D’Or.
We got onto Waterloo, tried the suggested maneuvers, got lost, asked for directions again. Again, we were told we were close, told to get back on Waterloo, drive straight down, and we’d see the sign for Toisson D’Or. So, we did this, saw the sign, followed it, but since it pointed us to the wrong street, we got lost.
This time, a kind soul told us to follow her, drove us back to Waterloo, turned on to it and stopped: “Here it is!” she said.
Yes folks, Waterloo Street and Toisson D’Or were the SAME GODDAMNED STREET! It had different names for different directions. Why? Who does that? We had in fact been on it as soon as we entered the city, and not one single person deigned to tell us.
Needless to say, I was not too pleased with Brussels at this point. In search of lunch we walked towards the Royal Palace and tourist zone beyond. Now, I don’t want to make fun of King Albert, who I’m sure is a worthy individual, but you have to feel bad for the guy. Where Buckingham Palace has fur-hat clad dudes in red and ill-disguised security forces with automatic weapons keeping an eye on the hundreds of tourists, it is considerably lower key in Brussels. In fact, I’m fairly certain I saw His Royal Highness peek through a curtain and wave in gratitude when I took a picture.
We headed down to the tourist zone (identifiable by the fact that every single establishment had some kind of TinTin poster in their window, though, to be fair, so did the royal palace). We had lunch –the famed Belgian mussels and fries. As we had, in our hunger and desperation, selected a tourist trap restaurant in the tourist-trap zone, they were terrible – I swear the fries were McCain’s. Strike two.
While we were there, there was also a large immigration protest going on (pro immigration). Amynah and I managed to get ahead of it, in order to walk on streets cleared of traffic. As we walked, we noticed that the sidewalks were crowded with Japanese tourists, cameras at the ready - I'm not sure if they were just really interested in Belgian immigration policy, or if they thought they were about to witness the world's angriest parade.
Brussels most famous tourist attraction is the Mannekin Pis – a fountain with a statue of a young boy relieving himself. They dress him up in different costumes depending on the season and current events – when we saw him he was all dolled up in a suit of armor for some reason. Legend has it that the statue commemorates a heroic six-year old who saved the city from being blown up by gunpowder by putting out the fuse by, well, in the way you might expect. One almost wishes that he didn’t bother.