Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Brussels: Sunday 29th March 2009

The shops are shut on Sundays in Belgium – but the markets are operational. We decided to visit the large Sunday market at Gare du Midi. We knew we were on the right metro due to the number of people travelling with those grocery trollies you pull along behind you.

The market spread over a large area and had multiple fruit and vegetable stalls along with meat seafood and cheese outlets. One area was busy with plants and trees and the rest was the usual clothing and junk. If you knew someone who wanted a lovely acrylic jumper in a hideous shade – this would be the place to visit.

We purchased a few vegetables and some cheese and headed back to the EU district where we had a walk around looking at the EU parliament as well as a number of parks in the area. The EU has a huge financial impact in office accomodation and supporting requirements. An example is Euro 87 million to revamp a metro station outside the EU Parliament.

There is some interesting art in our metro station (Thieffry). A number of broken columns which had parts of the body coming out of them. We watched a couple of school children run past and rub the hand for luck – you can see it coloured yellow from the rubbing. They don’t rub the bottom for luck ;-)

Today we also went back to the Cinqcitiere Park where we had been 3 years ago. We went back to the lovely Museum cafe where we had had a great lunch in 2006 and had another good lunch today.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Bruges: Saturday 28th March 2009

Belgian Rail has a great deal on weekends where train travel is half price. This also means the volume of travellers is also high. Fighting our way onto the train we headed to Bruges – also an hour North-West out of Brussels,. http://www.brugge.be/internet/en/index.htm

We started our day in Bruges with a half hour canal boat trip, looking at the buildings from the water level and getting a general feel for the town layout.

The boats and the views from the water

The historic city centre is a World Heritage Site of UNESCO and is has masses of visitors every year. It is a very well preserved medieval city.

We visited another Church of our lady – this one’s tower, at 122,3 meters in height, remains the tallest structure in the city and the second tallest brickwork tower in the world (made of small bricks). It also boasts a Michaelangelo marble Statue - these are rare as most of his work is in Italy

We meandered our way to the central market square, where decided against climbing the tower due to the long queue.

The tower

(NB. The recent movie "In Bruges" is an excellent offering if you haven't already seen it. There is a particulalry gory scene associated with the tower, but it is funny and a review called it "A modern day Grimm fairytale")

Buildings around the market Square

We had a look around the nearby City Hall square, with some impressive gilding. There was also an unusual church “Basilica of the Holy Blood” I think the canal boat driver said there were 20 churches in Bruges for 20,000 people in the historic city.

Holy Blood Church

Every third shop does appear to be a chocolatier, so we felt it only appropriate that more chocolate was needed today.

The architecture of this inner city is magnificent.

A quiet spot on the way back to the station - the Beguinage - a monastery for the Benedictine sisters

A great days trip. Bruges is worthwhile to be on a travel plan. We both really enjoyed our visit.

Andrew, having taken photographic advice from Mr Richard Harris, is now semi-professional, taking photos for pretty tourists

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Antwerp: Friday 27th March 2009

Today we ventured by train to Antwerp, about an hour north of the capital, but only 45km away The Antwerp railways station is considered to be a highlight of the cities architecture, but sadly the outside was being renovated, but the inside was still impressive.

Paula inside the railway station

Walking downtown we stumbled upon a shopping arcade that looked absolutely fabulous. Later we found out it had been destroyed by fire and had only re-opened in 2007 and really it isn’t a shopping centre but used as an events complex – markets functions etc.

At the restored Stadsfeestzaal if you look closely, the man in the blue coat on the right is Andrew checking out prices at the Champagne bar

Walking along the main streets to the market square it is obvious Antwerp has numerous gorgeous buildings and most are highly decorated. Antwerp is also well known for its design edge – fashion designers gravitate here and the home design stores were inspiring. Sadly we can’t really carry anything home.

The Cathedral of Our Lady was a fantastic church. Over €25million has been spent on it’s restoration which is largely complete, but there is still some significant euros still to be spent to complete it. It has three enormous Peter Paul Reubens paintings, one of which was particularly striking in it’s intensity “The Elevation of the Cross”

Paula in Market Square, Our Lady Church spire in background

Church Interior

AJ looking at Peter Paul Reubens painting

From there we wandered and enjoyed the buildings and shops. This was a stimulating town to visit. Today was the first day we have had any Belgian chocolates – but it won’t be the last Belgian chocolates we eat on this trip!

Brussels: Thursday/Friday 26th & 27th March 2009

We had stayed out near the airport as our apartment was not available until today. The station for the village of Kortenburg was about 2km away, so within walking distance – especially when we found a short taxi trip would be €30 – because it was such a short distance. Unfortunately for us it bucketed down and we got soaked. We both changed our trousers when we got to the station. Once in Brussels City itself we dropped our bags at left luggage and had a look around. The Grand Place is smart with a series of impressive buildings surrounding the square. We did the obligatory visit to Mannekin Pis statue (a Brussels icon) – but he was not dressed in any costume today. They probably didn’t know Andrew was going to be visiting today so nothing special had been prepared.

We had a bit of a city explore, then went out to our apartment for the week. It will be nice to have a base after a week’s of constant travel. It is on the 4th floor of a building without a lift and it was a bit of a killer lugging suitcases up! But it is good and after a visit to the Delhaize (local) supermarket we are set.

Brussels: Thursday 26th March 2009

Having travelled for over a month with basically no rain – lots of snow, but no rain – we are getting lots of it in Brussels. This morning we went to the Museum of fine arts http://www.fine-arts-museum.be/site/EN/ . While we knew it had a good collection of Flemish art we were surprised once again by the size of the collection. We ended up having to have lunch and return to finish off the museum. The museum has an impressive collection of Flemish paintings by Brueghel, Rogier van der Weyden, and Anthony van Dyck and more than 20 Rubens. By the end we were a bit museumed-out.

We then headed up to the Palace of Justice, the law courts of Brussels. This is an enormous building that is visible from many parts of the capital. The building is bigger than St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. As it is on rise it should have good views over the area – but with the rain there was no view – we will return!

Interior Steps at the palace of Justice

We sampled today one of the specialities of Belgium – waffles – mmmmm. Lightly caramelised on the outside they require no syrup.

Some street art seen near the parliament

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Copenhagen to Brussels: 23rd & 24th March 2009

It was interesting as we came into Copenhagen habour to see the electricity generating windmills situated in the middle of in water. That area was obviously not very deep.
We were dropped into Copenhagen city and once we had navigated our way to our hotel we set out to explore the city, which was compact.
Tivoli gardens, one of Copenhagen’s biggest attractions doesn’t open till April 8th –so cross that off the list. We walked along the waterside and around to the Royal Palace – all very quiet.
We visited the little mermaid, on Copenhagen harbour. The guide-books play her down as a forlorn little character, and not really worth going out of you way for, and so it proved to be. But the bus-loads of Tourists pull up, pose and then take off again.
The requisite picture of the "Little Mermaid"
A wander through some quirky back street shops and some main street boutiques. The Scandinavian design style is gorgeous in it’s simplicity and appeal, but not so attractive when you convert from Kroner!
Copenhagen to Brussels: Tuesday 24th March 2009
Today was the possibly coldest day of the trip so far. The temperature wasn’t so bad but the icy wind had the ability to go right through you. Then later in the day there were showers of heavy snow.
We went to the Christiania side of Copenhagen. Christiania was formerly army barracks until was occupied by a bunch of hippies in 1971 becoming a self governing community. Nowadays about 800 people live there and some people call it a social experiment. Soft drugs are openingly allowed and sold there but the Danish police are cracking down, reversing their previously turn-a-blind-eye policy. We went in wandered down Main St where people were standing arounding warming themselves over fires in 10 gallon drums etc. Feeling completely out of place we decided we weren’t that interested and left. No photos are allowed.
We headed out to the airport in the later afternoon bound for Brussels. From the plane there was an excellent view of the bridge between Denmark and Malmo, in Sweden. There is an underground tunnel that emerges in the middle of the sea to lead on to the bridge. Nearby was another wind farm in the sea.
Goodbye Kroners, welcome back to Euros!

Oslo: Sunday 22nd March 2009

Today we walked alongside the wharf looking at the fortress alongside. Oslo had a new opera house, opened in 2008, which sits on the waterfront. A very modern building that has a series of stairs so one could walk around them and end up on the roof. Kiri Te Kanawa is going to sing there on Monday.

We checked out the Norwegian parliament which was rather non-descript. The town hall was imposing and had many sculptures, but looked like something out of the communist architecture school. We took a bus 30 to Bygdøy, a area out of the centre of the town, where a number of maritime museums are located. We visited the Viking ship museum. Here there were 3 viking ships that were found and excavated around 1900. These ships had not sailed but were burial ships and the deceased had been buried with the ship. 2 were for wealthy Vikings and the 3rd was for a wealthy lady buried with her slave. It was quite interesting and some of the artefacts recovered from the same area were fascinating such as the intricately carved cart and the fragments of cloth.

From there we went to the Fram museum, which was an unexpected pleasure. The boat, Fram, which was built around 1890, has been the most far north into the Artic and also the most far south into the Antarctic. There was a very interesting exhibit on Nansen, a Norwegian polar pioneer who also won the Nobel Peace prize for his humanitarian work. The account of Amundsen’s trip to the south pole was similarly fascinating. He was a very good photographer and his pictures of eskimoes and travels added interest to an already fascinating story http://www.fram.museum.no/en//

In the afternoon we briefly visited the Munch museum, but didn’t see his most famous work “the Scream”. Some of his other paintings were quite appealing, others not so. We are taking the overnight ferry from Oslo to Copenhagen DFDS line “Crown of Scandanavia” which is very similar to the last big ship we took. When we got our bill for our restaurant meal onboard, we realised the wine cost as much as each of our meals - really there are 3 of us travelling through Scandinavia - Andrew, Paula and a bottle of wine

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bergen to Oslo: Saturday 21th March 2009

Today was a lot of short trips making up the journey from Bergen to Oslo. Norway tourism has been smart and created a very successful package called “Norway in a nutshell”. It allows travellers options to see the fjords, the mountains etc by providing co-ordinated schedules – get on train to Voss at 8:40, take bus to Gudvangen at 11am etc.

The initial train from Bergen to Voss (1 hour journey) was full of people off to the skifields. The scenery in many ways was very similar to Lake Wakitipu and Central Otago.

From Voss we had an hour’s bus ride to Gudvangen. The bus driver provided a bit of insight into the places we were passing, such as all the churches are east facing, buildings having notable foundations to enable them to cope with avalanche wind impacts. There is a lot of Trout and Salmon fishing in Norway’s lakes and rivers if you are interested.

Waiting for the ferry to arrive

From Gudvangen we took a ferry through a narrow arm of the Sognefjord to a small town called Flåm. The journey through the fjord was lovely, but again a little reminiscent of NZ. The sun was shining and there was almost no breeze, it was a lovely clear cold day with some ice on the water. The reflections in the water were lovely.

From Flåm we took the 14:50 train to Myrdal. We knew we would be 2 hours early for our connection to Oslo, but we thought it would be better to head to the main trunk line, and have something to see instead of the small village of Flḁm.

The small settlement of Flåm

The Flåmbana, a rail journey of 20km up to the Mountain plateau takes 45 minutes due to the gradient. Almost 80% of the line has a gradient of 1:18. There are 20 tunnels; 18 of which were excavated by hand. The scenery is stunning, heaps of snow, mountains and ravines to rivers and waterfalls. It was a very nice trip, made better by the small number of people on the train. It meant we could cross from seats on one side of the carriage to those on the other, depending on which side the attractions were.

Arriving in Myrdal we found it was even smaller than Flåm. There is 2m of snow against some of the buildings. There are a smattering of buildings, all shut for the winter and once the train to Bergen took the rest of our group away, I think we were the *only* people in town. Luckily there was a warm waiting room at the station as we waited the requisite 2 hours for the connecting train to Oslo.

The even smaller settlement of Myrdal and sitting quietly in a one horse town train station

The countryside on the way to Oslo was magnificent. There were many ski and wintersport areas very close to the train tracks.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bergen: Friday 20th March 2009

We took the 7 minute funicular railway trip to the top of Mt Floyan – 320m above sea level. The views over Bergen were useful. From here we could see the larger city, as well as the older heart where we have been exploring.

We took well marked trail down to the city centre for a nice hour’s walk. The views were good and much of the hillside forest is administered by a friendly society who employee a forest manager and volunteers do lots of the work

There is a UNESCO world heritage site at the old wharf of Bergen, called Bryggen. In the 14th to 16th centuries the town was an important post in the Hanseatic League’s trading empire. Much of it has been ravaged by fires over the years but rebuilding has traditionally followed old patterns and methods, thus leaving its main structure preserved.

Views from around the historic wharf area

Little boy in Fountain, and Ibsen the playwright

Bergen has a large number of statues. Greig the composer lived here, there are statues of kings etc. But a number are just a little but 'unusual' The boy in the fountain has a great look on his face - just like he is being hit with cold water, and Henrik Ibsen's eyes make him look completely demented. (PR's opinion)

One thing that is prevalent here is hand-knitting. Jersies are displayed in many shops (not just tourist ones) and there are many wool shops. There are some particulary lovely examples of delicate wool scarves.

Tonight we had dinner in the Café Opera, where we also had dinner last night. The atmosphere, food and staff were great so we thought we would go back again. It did not disappoint and provided a lovely meal at a reasonable price. Recommended.