Exploring Brugge in 12 hours

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

After a day in Antwerp to visit the Plantin Moretus Museum, I hopped on a train for a very fleeting visit to see the beautiful little city of Brugge. It's a place that I thought I wouldn't visit for quite a while; I knew it was lovely, but there were cities further up on my 'to see' list. However, with tickets for those under twenty-six being onl€6 between any two destinations in Belgium, I couldn't resist a little stop-off. It was a fleeting visit - I arrived at around seven in the evening, and I was back at the station to catch my coach back to London before 1pm the next day - but as usual I crammed plenty of walking in!

Getting to Bruges will usually require flying to Brussels, plus a train journey, but luckily the Belgian rail network is expansive, reasonably priced, comfortable and efficient (two storey trains!) and it's only just over an hour. The downside is that most of the flights will set you back around £100 each way, and adding transfers and train tickets bumps up the cost. A Eurostar ticket to Brussels is a cheaper option starting at around £60 return, but these seats book up fast - when I was searching three weeks in advance they had already increased to over £70 each way. By far the cheapest option (and my travel method of choice) is the coach. It can cost under £20 for a return fare and you're dropped straight at the train station in Brugge. I use Go Euro to search for cheapest options; it saved me £10 on my coach home simply by booking my ticket via the French Eurolines website rather than the Belgian one.

I nearly always stay in hostels - usually I won't be spending any time there aside from sleeping, and I'd rather have extra money to spend on another trip. The Monsieur Ernest was quite a departure from my usual, but it was nice to have a little luxury for a change. The hotel is styled beautifully, with a mosaic floor and a huge iron staircase cutting through the hall, dark walls and some great palm print wallpaper in the bar rooms. A double bed to myself is a luxury I rarely get these days, and I slept so well I briefly considered stealing a pillow. I booked my room using air miles, and I was expecting the usual room prices to be a lot more expensive than they are, but you'd probably pay more for a Travelodge in the UK. There are plenty of other hotels in the historical centre for reasonable prices, and if you're really on a budget there are hostels within the city walls starting under £20 a night (the Lybeer Hostel on Korte Vuldersstraat looks great).

I only took my average sized backpack with me on the trip, but ten hours of carting it around on the day I arrived had me feeling like it was filled with bricks - for a minute or two, I thought about jumping on a bus from the station to the centre. Once I got across the road and had a glimpse of the canal leading to Minnewater, I abandoned that plan and instead wandered the couple of kilometres up into the city. This is the best rule for Brugge: if you can walk it, walk it. The Poertoren (Powder Tower) formed part of the city's defences from the late fourteenth century and sits on the bridge at the south end of the lake, with a lovely view up to the lock house. I managed a quick walk around the tree-filled yard of the Begijnhof, admiring the white painted houses which were home to the beguines, before the nuns ushered the last straggling visitors out. A couple of streets up on Walstraat there's one of the Dumon chocolate shops, where I picked myself up a few dark chocolate caramel creams to take home. The rest of my walk to my hotel on Wulfhagenstraat took me up via Mariastraat, past Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, which houses Michaelangelo's Madonna and Child sculpture. Construction on the church began in the 13th century and continued for centuries, culminating with the brick spire which towers over the street at a height of over a hundred metres. Just opposite is Sint-Janshospitaal, one of the oldest hospital buildings in Europe. I didn't get a chance to see inside this time, where you can visit the old infirmary's museum of artefacts collected by the nuns, as well as the apothecary's garden and the work of famous Flemish painter Hans Memling. My route also took me by Sint Salvatorskathedraal, Bruges' oldest parish church, which has some impressive tapestries and Flemish paintings. Whilst these streets are quiet and most of the museums shut during the evening, they make for a beautiful walk.

After dropping my bag at the hotel, I resisted the urge to jump straight into the giant bed and instead headed straight back out to get a look at the historic market square before it started to get dark. The Markt has been used as a meeting place for hundreds of years, and is ringed by beautiful buildings: the Belfort tower and the Provinciaal Hof being the most impressive. The Provinciaal Hof isn't particularly old (it was finished in the 1920s) but has a fantastic neo-gothic facade; the Belfort on the other hand, is part of a complex of halls which date back to the 13th century. Climbing the nearly four hundred steps of the tower gives a great view over the city, and on the way up you can have a look at the treasury or the 47 bells of the carillon. I finished off my evening by walking through to the Vismarkt, where fresh fish is still sold each morning under the arcade, and nipping into a restaurant for some Flemish stew. Right around the corner is the Rozenhoedkaii, one of the most photographed spots in the city: this wide section of canal reflects the Belfort tower and the warm glow of the other buildings in the water.

I woke up the next day to heavy rain, but took the rainbow from my window to indicate a bit of sunshine, grabbed some breakfast and made sure to be on my way for 8:30am. Most attractions aren't open until 10am, so I had a little time to kill. I walked along the quieter side of the canal to the northeast of the city centre, taking in the quaint streets and the backs of the larger houses along the water. Here on Pottenmakersstraat I stumbled across Pottenmakersgarde, a miniature (and very well cared for) public garden in a ruined cottage - it's a lovely stop off. My destination was the Volkskundemuseum, a small museum set in converted almshouses which reconstructs elements of traditional Flemish life: there's a classroom, a grocery store, a pharmacy, a sweet maker's and several other little rooms recreated, often with interiors saved from original shops in Brugge. Alongside these rooms are displays of objects relating to popular culture, from religious artefacts to smoking paraphernalia. The museum even has it's own inn, De Zwarte Kat, and a real life black cat (Aristide) who wanders the grounds as a museum mascot! It's well worth the €4 entry fee, and you can get a combined ticket to the Kantcentrum on the same street for €6. This little museum has displays relating to Brugge's long-running lace making industry, and each afternoon has demonstrations of traditional techniques (the results of which you can buy in the shop).

With time getting on I started winding my way through the smaller streets back to the central areas, walking along the Groenerei canal and peering through the rain at the houses and boats. This walk took me back to the Vismarkt, and this time I made a right under the little arch of Blinde Ezelstraat into the city's second main square, the Burg. Originally in this square was a fortress and later the Sint Donaaskathedraal, neither of which survive, but you can see the cathedral foundations in the basement of the Crowne Plaza Hotel if you ask at reception! Here is also the beautiful gothic Stadhuis, and my final stop in Brugge: the spectacular Heilig Bloedbasiliek. The lower chapel is dedicated to St Basil, and the upper chapel holds an important medieval relic - a vial supposedly containing cloth with Christ's blood. The richly painted interior of the upper chapel, whilst not particularly old, is very beautiful. After watching the relic brought out for veneration, I finally started my walk back to the station, following the Dijver to the picturesque (but packed) Bonifacius Bridge, before heading down some quieter streets to Minnewaterpark and my awaiting coach. 

For the next trip: more street wandering, another box of chocolates from Dumon, climbing the Belfort, a look inside Sint-Janshospitaal, viewing the Flemish primitives at the Groeningemuseum, and a visit to the windmills.

A day in Antwerp

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Last month, armed with a packed lunch (and snacks, and dinner), I jumped on the nine-hour coach for a little solo trip to Antwerp, to visit one of the museums that's been on my list for a long time. After arriving in the city in the evening, I walked from the bus stop across to Antwerp Old Town, winding through the smaller streets to the city's main square. I stayed at Antwerp City Hostel (Grote Markt 40); like in most hostels, in you'll be sharing a room with a dozen strangers, so it's not always the most restful; but at as little as €21 including breakfast, it's pretty unbeatable value. I set up my top bunk, had a look at my map and headed straight back out to have a wander around the streets. 

After a couple of hours, I took myself on to the riverside, sitting for a while in the sunshine and watching people go by. By the time I got back to the main square, the sun was setting and I stopped into a little Italian restaurant for a quick dinner. Around the square, restaurants are expensive and I had no signal to look up anywhere recommended, so I initially chose Pizzeria da Antonio (Grote Markt 6) because it was much more reasonably priced. However it had a real atmosphere, and great pasta; they even whipped up an off-the-menu authentic aglio e olio for the multi-lingual businessman eating next to me. The next morning I headed off early, heading up to the Museum aan de Stroom - I didn't have time for a visit, but I wanted to at least get a look at the building. The collections sound fascinating, so it's on my list for next time. Then it was time for the main focus of my trip: the Plantin-Moretus Museum, which for a book history lover like me was virtually paradise! After a few hours there, I made a whirlwind trip round the Rubenshuis, once home to the most famous of Flemish painters, Peter Rubens. My final stop in Antwerp was the Antwerpen-Centraal Station, a sightseeing spot in its own right for its beautiful architecture, to catch the train to my next city!

FAVOURITES: I initially popped into Nello Chocolates (Handschoenmarkt 10) for a hot chocolate, but tried an almond florentine and ended up going back for a whole box. If you're looking for gifts, Superet (Wijngaardstraat 21) is chock full of beautiful accessories, homeware and stationery, and Wunderkammer (Steenhouwersvest 13) stocks jewellery and beauty products alongside interiors accessories and kitchenware. On the same street is Wunderkammer's lovely sister store bookshop, 't Stat Leest (Steenhouwersvest 16), and further up towards the square the International Magazine Store (Melkmarkt 17) has an incredible selection of magazines of all genres and multiple languages. For antiques and vintage, Minderbroederstraat had several shops which looked great, and I had flashbacks to buying vintage denim in Camden when I walked past the well-stocked Episode (Reyndersstraat 26-28). Foodwise, I mainly ate the remnants of my coach food, but Normo Coffee (Minderboederstraat 30) looked like a good bet, and veggie bistro Wild Project (Grote Pieter Potstraat 21) is a place I'd like to try next time round, especially after learning of their collaboration with local zero waste shop Robuust (Reynderstraat 2/1). Hendrik Conscienceplein, flanked by the Sint-Carolus Borromeuskerk and the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library, was my favourite spot in the city.

Post-apocalyptic & Dystopian Reads #6

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

M. K. Wren
In a near-future America, nuclear war has destroyed much of civilisation and disease decimated many of the survivors. Mary and Rachel spend their days doing the things necessary to survive in the new world, but they're also determined to preserve some of the old one: they save books. As the years move on and a new community is built at their subsistence farm, cultures clash, putting Mary's work at risk. The ending of the book seemed a little heavy-handed in comparison to the rest of Wren's writing, but overall I really enjoyed this book - it was particularly refreshing for the undercurrent of the book to be focused on deep friendship between women. Wren's descriptions are lovely and (aside from a slightly flat antagonist) the characters mostly compelling.

Aldous Huxley
I first read Huxley's famous utopian dystopia when I was in my early teens, and it didn't stick. Ten years later, I found the writing simultaneously compelling and irritating. Published in 1932, the novel's setting is a eugenics-enabled totalitarian feudalistic society, with its members conditioned into contentment with genetic engineering, hypnosis and drugs. Aspects of the novel are fascinating and horrifying from a theoretical standpoint, but on my re-reading, I found myself wondering if Huxley really thought eugenics was all that bad, especially given the involvement of his circle (including his brother) in the eugenics movement at this time. Rather, it seems that it's the consumer culture and perceived shallowness of society which was his real concern. In an edition following the second world war, Huxley did criticise this aspect of the novel (a seeming choice between sedated, sanitised utopia vs a clearly racialised, 'primitive' society), but his rendering of the 'savage reservation' is astoundingly dehumanising, and provides nothing towards the criticism of the mainstream society which the narrative supposedly aims for. The society which Huxley envisions as having grown from eugenics is clearly racialised, a fact more conspicuous through its lack of recognition. It might be a classic, but I just didn't enjoy it.

Jeff VanderMeer
My reading of the first part of the Southern Reach trilogy a while ago left me disappointed with the execution, but interested enough in the premise of the story to continue reading and see if it developed. Authority is set back in the inhabited area outside Area X, focusing on 'Control', the new director of the Southern Reach facility. It's quite a different read to Annihilation, and I found myself tiring of keeping up with Control - I just didn't like him very much, and the narrative was draggingly over long. Acceptance was an improvement: it provided some of the answers I was hoping VanderMeer would provide, though in a convoluted way. There's more of the eerie landscape which I enjoyed in the first book, and more of VanderMeer's beautiful prose (a relief after the second book) but it just didn't quite come together for me.

John Wyndham
In David's world the 'Tribulation' is has long since occurred, but its effects (presumably radiation-based) are still being felt. In an attempt to prevent another apocalypse, David's religious community shun even the slightest deviation from prescribed norms; destroying crops and farm animals, and sterilising or excommunicating human 'Blasphemies' to the Fringes. David is trying to work out his place in the world and his own beliefs, and soon has experiences which challenge the ideals his community espouses and changes his life forever. The Chrysalids was my first introduction to Wyndham, and I enjoyed it just as much this time round. Wyndham has created a vivid world and one where I was truly invested in the characters and their future; but what I liked most was how clear it becomes that every pocket of society have their own idea of what normality and deviation means.

George R. Stewart
Stewart's novel is a sci-fi classic and a fairly straightforward read. Ish Williams awakes in the mountains following a snake bite and a bout of illness, soon realising that he's among a small group who've survived the new disease. He takes himself on a road trip, taking in the extent of the devastation and living a largely solitary life; however, he soon finds himself building his own community. I really enjoyed some of the technical aspects of this story: questions which are often glossed over for dramatic effect in post-apocalyptic literature are explored here. How long would water continue running? What happens to the food chain when humans are mostly removed? In some ways, I felt this a more 'realistic' catastrophe than others I've read, refreshing for how quickly human society changes post-apocalypse even within Ish's lifetime. However, if you're considering reading this book, it's worth bearing in mind that aspects of the book (namely the treatment of race and gender) do firmly root the book in its time, 1949.

See all my reviews of Post-Apocalyptic & Dystopian Reads here!

Iceland Road Trip: Across Eastern Iceland

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Read all of my posts about our Iceland road trip here.

After catching sunset at Stokksnes the previous night, we were up early again to try and get a glimpse of sunrise. Arriving in darkness and rushing around the dunes to find the perfect clump of grass to foreground our shots of Vesturhorn, we waited for light to start creeping into the sky. Instead of pastel tones we were greeted with building grey clouds, covering the tiny tinge of pink in the distance, and before we knew it we were standing in full daylight. The details we'd mostly missed in our nighttime visit came into focus: huge swathes of black sand, blown into ripples and growing yellow wheat. After an hour or so we jumped back in the car, turning up the heat and warming ourselves for the next leg of the journey. We followed the ring road alongside the coast, crossing river deltas, admiring the craggy coastline and pointing out the remnants of old farms as we went. It was here that we stopped to have a closer look at a little farmhouse perched on the hillside of Hamarsfjörður, the pyramid of Búlandstindur pushing up behind. We drove up a little track, waded through grasses to the front door and hopped in through an open window. Inside, there were still pots on the stove and crockery on the shelves, lace curtains still flapping in the breeze of the open window. We creaked upstairs, finding traditional wooden beds much like we'd seen at the old farm in Skaftafell. Abandoned houses like these were common as we moved round the more remote parts of the coast, battered by the cold and with corrugated iron walls stripped of paint by the wind. 

We continued on Route 1, passing through valleys where red and yellow poppies grew in huge clumps at the side of the road and snow was still sitting on the tops of the mountains around us. Our slow drive ended in Fellabær, across the river from Egilsstaðir. The earlier bright sunshine turned to black clouds and heavy rain, beating down on the car whilst we ran our bags into our little guesthouse. Instead of braving the downpour, we ate cereal bars and watched Icelandic music channels, falling asleep early. The next morning we discovered our host's land was dotted with rusting vintage cars - too expensive to move now, and not worth selling in the first place, he said. The day's drive was to take us a hundred miles northwest of the little town, ending by the picturesque lake of Mývatn. As we drove, more and more snow started appearing either side of the road, until the entire landscape was totally white aside from dark cracks in the lava flows. Here was where I managed the third disaster of the trip; a gust of wind which blew over my tripod just as I turned to grab another lens. I watched as my camera crashed against the road, smashing the lens straight off the body and rolling it straight into the path of an oncoming car. I was fully expecting everything to be damaged beyond repair: my lens' glass was intact, but would no longer stay put on the camera, and turning on the camera resulted in an ominous TV test pattern kind of display. Over the next few hours it slowly returned to life, but we decided to give it more time to recover and headed to the Mývatn Nature Baths instead. The baths had the same milky turquoise colour of the Blue Lagoon, but hotter and cleaner, minus the hordes of people and over priced drinks. We alternated between the sauna and the pools, bracing ourselves against the freezing wind outside the water, and stayed until darkness fell and we drove back to the hotel through the snow.

Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Monday, 1 May 2017

On my latest trip up to see family in Cambridge, I took advantage of an extra cheap, extra early train ticket to make the most of the day trip. I arrived with a couple of hours to kill before meeting my family and as all of the museums were shut I decided to have a look around the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. It's a little further out from the main town, so I'd never ventured there before, and didn't know what to expect given the chilly early-March weather - but I was rewarded with the most beautiful blossom trees! The gardens opened in 1846 after moving from a smaller site in the centre of the city, and the original teak structure of the Temperate House has recently been restored - you won't see another glass house like it, as it's the last of its kind in the UK. The tropical rainforest glass house is particularly beautiful, especially with the bizarre strongylodon macrobotrys (jade vine) which flowers in spring. I was intrigued to find a little cubby hole for reference books within the glass houses (though it's now sadly empty). Outside, there's forty acres to explore, from rock gardens and roses to plants in bogs or flowers for bees.