Brussels is the headquarters of the European Union and consequently is the site of many protests. We came across this one in front of a McDonalds near our hotel. What I found interesting, they were not protesting anything about that McDonalds, but we’re protesting that McDonalds employes in the United States were not being paid a living wage.
Our hotel is well located near all the big attractions in Brussels. It is just two blocks from the main square known as the Grand Place. When we got to the square we noticed they were erecting a large stage in the square and there were rainbow flags on the side streets. It turns out that this Saturday is Pride4Every1, which attracted 80,000 people last year. All the roads around our hotel will be closed Saturday, the day we leave for Paris, for the event. We are trying to learn when the roads close so we don’t have to pull our suitcases to the train station.
What is the most famous site in Brussels? What are these people looking at?
It’s this fountain known as Manneken Pis. They dress the statue for special occasions such as an Elvis Presley outfit for Elvis’s birthday. They even have a museum with costumes worn by the statue. Go figure what appeals to tourists.
After three days of predominantly rainy weather, we have had two cold but mostly sunny days. On the last rainy day, we visited Rembrandt’s house, the Jewish History Museum, and Anne Frank’s House. When you go through the rooms where she and seven others were hiding, the rooms are incredibly small for the number of people occupying them. The house is unfurnished at the father’s request to symbolize the emptiness he felt after he was the only survivor. No pictures were allowed in the house and it was hard to get a decent picture outside. Anne’s house is the fourth building from the right (the one with the black first floor behind the boat).
Today we went to Kuekenhof Gardens. This is the famous tulip garden that is only open for two months a year. We were past the peak bloom (seems to be the story of our life), but there were many tulip beds at peak bloom and many flower displays in greenhouses. Most of the tulip blooms were two to three times larger than at home and some were as high as my waist!
We learned in one of our walks that the Dutch have a nice solution to the junk mail problem. They have broken the junk mail into two different categories, and you put a sign on your mail slot: ja if you want that kind of junk mail and née if you don’t. Most signs were née-nee, a few were nee-ja, but I never saw a ja-ja.
And the answer to what the beam with a hook at the top of buildings is used for is to lift furniture to the upper floors and bring it in through the windows. The stairs in the buildings are too narrow, crooked, and steep to bring furniture up the stairs. The stairs in the Anne Frank house were very steep and narrow. Tomorrow we are off to Brussels.
As you might guess from the title, the weather has not been great here and the forecast looks like more of the same. That means that we and everyone else in town are seeing a lot of museums. This line in front of the Van Gogh museum is a typical sight around town.
Fortunately we have a museum card which allows us to bypass the lines.
We have been eating at a lot of good restaurants: so far Argentinian, Indian, and Indonesian. Our favorite was the Indonesian where we had a 12 course sampler plate. Each was delicious with lots of flavorful spices, but not excessively spicy. I am not one for taking pictures of my food, but this was unusual enough with the 12 dishes arranged on small metal tables kept warm by candles underneath.
The houses along the canals have different shaped gables to conceal the ordinary pitched roofs behind them. They all have a beam with a hook on it near the top of the gable as shown in the picture below. If you think you know what this is for, leave your guess as a comment below. I’ll give the correct answer in the next post.
It is very exciting walking around Amsterdam. There are very few cars, but lots of bikes, trams, and busses. The bikes and trams are very quiet, so you have to always be alert for them. People of all ages and dress are riding the bikes sometimes holding kids, packages, or umbrellas. I think it would be pretty exciting riding a bike while holding an umbrella since strong gusts of wind are a common occurrence.
One final initial thought on Amsterdam. I really have to look up to the women of Amsterdam. Literally! I would guess that 25% of the younger women are taller than I am.
Bruges was our favorite port of call on our transatlantic crossing. The medieval architecture in the city center is mostly in tact; and, of course, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The shopping is chocolate and lace. We went for some delicious hot chocolate. Unlike our guide at Mont Saint-Michel, our guide was interesting and easy to understand. The tour only included a walk through the town and a ride in a canal boat; so if the weather is nice, we are thinking of making a day trip back from Brussels to see the town in more detail. I’ll let the pictures speak for the beauty of the town.
After eight relaxing days at sea to begin the cruise, the last half of the cruise where we were in port many days proved to be more eventful. The ugly occurred on the formal night when lobster was served. One man was upset when an adjacent table that was seated after he was got served their lobster before he did. He proceeded to go to the adjoining table and punch the man in the nose. This resulted in an all out fight, with one wife screaming hysterically, and the captain breaking up the fight. Both offenders were thrown off the ship and banned for life from sailing again. We were in the restaurant at the time but didn’t see the fight and thought the screaming was a hysterical child. How embarrassing that two seniors could behave this way over who got there lobster first!
The bad occurred on our trip to Mont Saint-Michel. The guide was not very good, and gave unclear instructions about returning to the bus. When it was time to return to the ship, the wife of one of the men on the trip was missing. He would not leave without his wife and got off the bus to look for her. We pulled out of the now empty parking lot with him wondering aimlessly looking for his wife. We all said you can’t leave him this way, but the driver and guide were insistent we had to leave. One woman then voluntarily got off the bus to help him (her husband was on another trip so she risked them getting separated when the ship sailed). It was all very disturbing but had a happy ending as they found the wife, everyone got to the ship on time, and the heroine got her excursion cost refunded.
The good was everything else about the trip. In fact, we enjoyed it so much, we booked another crossing from Miami to Rome on an even bigger ship next April. It is fully refundable until December, so we can easily change our mind if we decide we don’t really like spending long summers in Europe. Part of the good was playing bridge on many afternoons with a nice couple from Florida. This couple taught me the important skill of bagelizing. I hope to put my new found bagelizing skills to good use. Thanks, Joe! We have completed the cruise and are now in Amsterdam. Following are some pictures from our port calls.
Wooden Street Elevator in Lisbon
Mont Saint-Michel in France
The White Cliffs of Dover England
Pictures of Brugge, our favorite stop, to follow.
If you are reading this, it means that eight days at sea have passed and we have found a restaurant in Lisbon with free wifi. During the first six days at sea, the only thing we saw other than sea and sky was a distant ship and one lonely bird. On day seven we saw several of the islands in the Azores.
We are on a transatlantic crossing of the Celebrity Constellation with 2300 traveling companions. To put this in perspective, I have been on over a dozen vacations on ships varying in size from 40 to 330 passengers. On several occasions, the 330 passenger ship seemed too big to me. Needless to say, I had some fear that I would hate a ship this size and be bored with eight straight sea days.
We had decided we wanted to spend the summer in Europe. There were two ways to get there: fly or ship. The Martins, who were our inspiration for adopting this lifestyle, said that repositioning cruises such as this one were their favorite way to cross the Atlantic. Comparing the two options, you have to give speed to the planes, but comfort, food, entertainment, jet lag and service go to the ship by a wide margin. Cost can go either way, but was similar in our case.
At this point we are enjoying the cruise and would do it again. The entertainment and lectures are virtually non stop. Our favorites are:
1) a woman who was head of the White House Visitation Office for the Clintons. She has a lot of inside information on life in Washington.
2) A British piano player who plays all types of music but mostly classical. He is quite a showman and has a lot of fascinating background on what he is playing.
3) A singer whose repertoire ranges from Leonard Skinner to Pavaratti. He did two of my favorite songs: Gabriel’s Oboe from The Mission (it has been given lyrics in Italian) and Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen.
At this point, I wouldn’t say the bigger ship is better than the smaller ship, but it is a lot more pleasant than flying!
In the South, spring tends to be all about the azaleas. We live near Brookgreen Gardens which is a sculpture garden and wildlife preserve built by Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington on four former rice plantations to showcase her sculptures. We went twice this year to try to catch the azaleas at their prime. As you might guess from the title we were too early the first time and they were past their prime the second time. Still, I think you will agree from the pictures below, the gardens are beautiful at any time.
We begin our “home free adventures” this Thursday. We sail to Europe on the Celebrity Constellation with ten days at sea and stops in Lisbon, Dover, Mont Saint-Chapel, and Brugge. We get off the ship in Amsterdam where we will stay for five nights. We talked to someone who is just back from Amsterdam and he reports the tulips are early this year. We are hoping to see some tulips there, but it looks like we will be late again. We will not be blogging until we get to Amsterdam.
Friday we took a day long tour of thirteen different plantations, homes, and churches dating from the 1700’s to very early 1900’s located in Georgetown County, SC. This event is sponsored by one of the churches in Georgetown. This is the first time either of us had explored this area of the county and we found it beautiful and fascinating. In pre-revolutionary and antebellum times, the Georgetown area was one of the wealthiest areas of the country. The wealth was based on rice, indigo, and long leaf pine. Four of the signers of the Declaration of Independence came from the Charleston/Georgetown area. One of the things that surprised me was the prevalence of gun clubs or hunting preserves in the area. It turns out, the abandoned rice fields are very attractive to migratory birds. There was one active gun club on the tour owned by six families that share use of the building. Another home was a private home in the middle of a huge hunting preserve. Another former gun club had been given to the state of South Carolina and is now a nature reserve. We are anxious to return there to explore the boardwalk in a water bird nesting area and the walking trails. We plan to go to Brookgreen Gardens this week to check out the azaleas there.
Following are a few pictures from our plantation tour.
We stopped in Florida on our way home from Guatemala to visit friends wintering in Siesta Key. We went to Sarasota one day to visit The Ringling, a collection of museums established by John Ringling (of circus fame) and his wife Mable. The Ringling consists of their home, an art museum, a circus museum, and gardens. John died with only $300 in cash and this fabulous art collection and home which he left to the people of Florida. The first picture is his home on Sarasota Bay.
The art museum contains Ringling’s collection of 16th – 20th century European paintings featuring a large number of Rubens.
I loved these vines that were growing flat against the walls.
Of course I can fit into a small clown car! Did you have any doubts?
But who is Olivia? She is the osprey who is nesting on a platform built for that purpose near the condominium unit where our friends live. They named the nesting pair Oscar and Olivia. I went to visit their nest in an attempt to get a picture of one of them landing on the nest. They landed repeatedly when I first met them, but I didn’t have my camera with me. On this second visit, Olivia was sitting on the nest and kept a close watch on what I was doing. There was no landing action to photograph, but I like this picture of her staring intently at me.
We took an excused absence from school today and took a chicken bus to the small Mayan village of San Antonio. In case you never heard of a chicken bus, they are OLD US school buses that are driven to Guatemala, repainted in vivid colors, and possibly refurbished by adding luggage racks on the roof or other modifications. They are called chicken buses because the riders often bring live animals on the bus. We walked to the bus depot on the edge of town.
We found the bus that had our destination painted on the front.
While we were waiting for the bus to leave the station, various venders came through the bus hawking their wares. The bus stops for anyone along the way at any point. Once a women in uniform got on collecting for some charity, rode a minute or so while she collected donations, and then got off the bus.
All chicken buses have an assistant driver who spends most of his time hanging out the open door of the moving bus.
His job is to see that the bus clears any obstacles on the right side, to attract passengers, and to collect the fares. This brings us to the answer of how a chicken bus crosses the road in Antigua. Actually, it is rather carefully in many instances. Because the sidewalks are very narrow and the buildings are right next to the sidewalk, it is hard to see oncoming traffic without getting right in the middle of the intersection. The bus stops at the intersection, the assistant goes into the cross street to check for traffic, signals the driver when it is safe to cross, and hops on the bus as it crosses the street.
Where do you get your shoes Shined?
We like to go to Central Park and look for Tony.
Does it rain in Antigua?
We literally have not seen a drop of rain in five weeks!
Did you really go to school for four weeks?
Yes, we did.
Are you ready to go home?
Not really. This has been a wonderful experience for us. We are a little concerned about whether we will enjoy Europe as much since the culture is more similar to ours.
Would you go to Antigua again?
In a heartbeat!