Saturday, July 26, 2008

Bruges: Belgium's Jewel

Coasting down the gentle canal waters, surrounded by brick buildings and the medieval walls, it didn’t seem like a place that should actually exist outside a fairy tale or a movie set. Once the economic hub of the Low Countries, the town of Bruges, Belgium, is today one of the most appealing small cities in Europe.

Just a one-hour train ride from Brussels, the capital of the European Union, Bruges stands seemingly forgotten by time. The Europeans haven’t forgotten it, though, naming it the European Capital of Culture in 2002.

When I was there, it was after a visit to Brussels, where the old market square and Mannekin Pis were worthwhile, but I didn't have a chance to fully explore the city. With only two days before I had to fly home, I hoped Bruges wouldn’t disappoint.

It didn’t.

My first night there was a blur of train station, taxi ride through dark streets and check-in at the Hotel Adornes, located in the old town.

In the morning, I awoke to the splendor that is Bruges. An overcast sky threatened rain, but the canal outside my window gently lapped at the piers of a centuries-old bridge and ran past brick buildings as it met up with the other small waterways that add to the ambiance of the city.

The hotel offered free bicycles, and my family and I wanted to make use of them before any rain came. We went down to what I thought of as a stable, and selected four of the 20-odd two-wheelers there. Childishly delighted with the bells attached to the handlebars, we rumbled over cobblestones toward a series of windmills knowing that all cars yield the right-of-way to bicycles in Bruges.

Along the outer canal of the old town, several old windmills stand as examples of one of Belgium’s quintessential sights. None were open at the time, though it looked like they were sometimes available for tours. I would have liked to see the wooden wheels and pegs that made up the older windmill gears, but I had to settle for the views of the exteriors and, inexplicably, only manage to take one (poor) photograph.

Leaving the windmills, we rode over a dirt path that circles the old town. In the canal to the left, low-slung barges passed each other under stone-and-brick bridges. Several of the larger roads spanning the canal had fortified gatehouses erected when Bruges was entering its golden age, between the 12th and 15th centuries.

The curved sides and stout construction of one of them indicated its being designed for mortal struggle, but with the host of swans lazing in the canal beneath it and the occasional car passing through its permanently open gate and portcullis, it’s hard to imagine a time when enemy armies might have threatened the town, even though its port was used by German U-boats as recently as the First World War.

Looking back to the town, building after idyllic building passed by, separated from us by the street and fields of flowers. The citizens of Bruges are surrounded by a rare beauty, and they maintain it well.

Further on, we came to Lovers’ Lake, one of the more pristine areas I have ever seen in any city. The natural beauty is no more impressive than Hyde Park in London or some of the islands in Paris, but when the distinctive architecture and a few swans are thrown in, it’s hard to rival.

As the capital of Flanders, Bruges embodied many of the fine arts during and just after the Renaissance. Many canvases from the Dutch Old Masters are on display in the city’s various museums, but with limited time, we opted to see one of the original fine arts still practiced today.

Following directions in our guide book, we weaved through several small streets before coming to a lace museum. We wandered through it rather quickly, stopping to view some of the most ornate garments and tablecloths I have ever seen, then walked into the meeting room.

A low hum of click-clicking greeted my ears as I stepped through the door to see about 30 elderly women tossing wooden spools of thread over each other to weave intricate designs. The less-complicated patterns required the workers to juggle between 10 and 30 spools, while some of the more complex designs necessitated far more.

I’m usually one of the first to roll my eyes at the obvious tourist-trap “crafts” that any 12-year-old can make in art class, and this was nothing of the sort. It was abundantly clear that the women, chatting to each other in Flemish, French and English as they worked, had spent years honing their skills. Without a burning need for a doily, I couldn’t rationalize spending the money that the pieces are definitely worth to buy one, but just watched them work.

After an excellent lunch at The Flemish Pot (a future post), we grabbed a ride on one of the canal boats with a group of Mexicans proudly supporting their team in the World Cup, which was being played in Germany at the time.

Floating through the city’s waterways as the guide explained what we were seeing in no less than four languages, we passed under low bridges and got a better understanding of some of the historic buildings dotting the city, including the belfry that stands on the south side of the market square and has 47 bells still played by a full-time employee.

After the boat ride, we got back on our bikes and sped toward the town square for some chocolates from Dumon before the shop closed, and a stop at the town square, which has the belfry and the city hall. It was fairly crowded with a mix of tourists, buses, horse-drawn carriages and people out walking their dogs.

We had dinner at a local pub with delicious food and beer that seemed to evidence the Belgians’ assertion that their beer is better than Germany’s, and then it was time for a nighttime walk through the town, which had become surprisingly quiet. The water reflected the subtle lights and our footsteps echoed in the narrow alleys as we whiled away the last hours of our trip.

Taking the taxi to the train station that would take us to Brussels and a flight home the next morning, we passed through the city as it was waking up. The sun rose higher above canals and buildings that can only be described as quaint. At that moment, I felt like Bruges was begging me to stay. I had to settle for promising myself a return trip at some point.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A State Ablaze

California is currently awash in fires, mostly started by lightning strikes from dry thunder storms. Yesterday, I was able to see some of the fires from the air, as I returned from a family reunion in Kansas and Missouri.

For weeks, those of us who live remotely near any of the fires currently raging throughout the state have woken, day after day, to smoke-filled skies and an angry red sun that seems to be frustrated by its inability to penetrate the haze.

The pouring rain I flew away from in Kansas City would have been a welcome presence in the forested areas of California, but we're not so lucky.

As the plane entered the Golden State, I looked out the window to see great clouds of smoke obscuring the usually proud mountaintops. I mi
ght have mistaken the smoke for fog were it not for an ethereal red-orange glow emanating from within.

I stared at the glowing patches of fires too remote to bother fighting as they slowly passed under the wing. I grabbed my camera too late to catch the eerie effects of the flames, but I got a few shots of the fires sending smoke toward Nevada.

I've lost track of how many fires are currently burning, but I think it's somewhere around 300. The smoke continues to hang in the valley, making for foul air, but fantastic sunsets and a blood-red moon.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Hounds of Cheverny

France's Loire Valley is home to some of the most magnificent buildings in the world. One of the most interesting is the Château de Cheverny. Originally a fortified castle, the present building shows no signs of military architecture. As France became more stabilized after the 30 Years War, nobles tended to focus more on opulence than security.

The current château was built in the style of Louis XIII, and features symmetrical architecture, with lavishly decorated rooms, the obligatory suits of armor, and, of course, 70-odd hunting dogs which battle for a meal every day.

La soupe des chiens - the feeding of the dogs - is one of the more entertaining sights I have seen. As the time for the feeding drew near, I joined the huddle of tourists at the dog pen, enclosed by sturdy iron bars and a gate at the base of a ramp to a secondary enclosure.

The dogs knew what was happening. A few of the more eager ones ran laps in front of the assembled tourists, while others didn't seem to want to get their hopes up just yet. When a man in a blue lab coat carrying a whip came out, followed by two others who started to hose off the ground of the otherwise-empty enclosure, the dogs went nuts. They barked, bayed and howled as they jumped and pushed against each other to get close to the gate.

After hosing the ground clean, the two men opened an old wood door and began shoveling out the feast the dogs were about to consume. A layer of meat was covered by shovels full of standard dog food. The pile looked like someone had dumped a trough out and left all the food.

"Release the hounds!" the labcoated trainer called. (OK, so I don't know what the exact French words were, but that's what I imagined he said).

One of the assistants opened the gate, and a flood of canines charged through the opening, the only thing between them and the food being a few yards of wet ground.

Then they stopped when the trainer flicked his wrist. Every single one of them stood a foot or so back from the food. They whined and jostled for position, awaiting the trainer's command. Some even tried to climb on the backs of those in front. Once the trainer determined there had been sufficient anticipation, he gave a sharp command and stepped out of the way.

As one, the hounds leaped, charged, dove and scrambled for the feast. Some dug in only to be jumped on and pushed aside by others. Wagging tails waved in the air as the food was devoured faster than any of us watching probably imagined it could be.

It was over in a couple of minutes. A few scattered pieces of food lay at the far reaches of the pen before the dogs sniffed them out and ate them. Several of the hounds were cut and bloodied from the fray.

I started to walk away, then turned around and watched them a while longer. I wondered what the point was. Yes, the dogs were well-trained, and that was impressive, but other than it being a spectacle for tourists, I couldn't imagine a practical purpose for keeping them all from the food. Then again, I don't hunt, and I imagine keeping your dogs from tearing your food to ribbons is probably a concern.

The whole spectacle fit in perfectly with the surroundings. Standing on immaculately tended lawns looking at a building that served a nobleman as a palace, it makes sense that there should be an army of hunting dogs on the grounds. After all, the nobility of all European nations loved to hunt, and la soupe des chiens is an interesting way to bring the past to life.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Breaking Tradition

It's been more than a decade since my family first broke a long-standing tradition. Every Fourth of July, my aunts, uncles, grandparents and a few neighbors met at our house for a barbecue, swimming and fireworks in the court. But the summer after my eighth-grade year, we decided we had to be in Washington, D.C., for the celebration of independence.

Since it's been so long, the fog of time has stolen some of my memories, but it was my first visit to the capital, and there are some things you just can't forget about being there - on that day in particular.

Independence Day happened to come at the tail end of a trip through the New England states. We visited Lexington and Concord, in Massachusetts, where farmers first stood up in armed conflict against the greatest military power in the world, and fired the first shots in a long war that would end with 13 free states struggling to form a government everyone could agree on.

A few days later, we were at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and saw the "high water mark" of the Confederate advances into the northern states and where President Lincoln gave the famous Gettysburg Address. Rows of cannon, their bronze barrels now green with exposure to the elements, stand as a silent testament to the fury that opposing sides of the country felt for each other.

In Washington, D.C., we saw the National Mall, with the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and all the other sights I had learned about in history classes. A few people waded in the reflecting pool, the same one Martin Luther King, Jr., looked into when he gave his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Walking the streets on the Fourth of July, everyone was in a festive mood. Even a homeless man wore an ostentatious top hat of red, white and blue. Another man played patriotic songs on his trumpet. Red, white and blue decorations were everywhere, and it was nearly impossible to find a spot where I couldn't see an American Flag.

If the day had been festive, the night was fantastic. When darkness fell, we were back at the Lincoln Memorial, sitting on the steps facing the Washington Monument. The din of conversation hushed as the first fireworks exploded over the top of the marble obelisk and The Star Spangled Banner was blasted over loudspeakers. When I had been to fireworks shows before, in Old Sacramento and the fairgrounds, I always looked forward to the grand finale. In D.C., the entire show was the grand finale, and it lasted a long time.

I don't really remember what we did after the fireworks show, if anything, and I don't know if that was the last day of our trip or not, but in the years that have come and gone since then, that is the thing I remember most about the trip. We even (randomly) have a Christmas ornament that depicts the scene, complete with lights and fireworks sounds.

Living on the West Coast and not being surrounded by the country's history, it is often easy to forget where we came from. A trip to New England brings the important events in the country's history to the forefront like little else can, and reminds us all that the United States has seen great successes, and great tragedies, but there are always people willing to sacrifice to make the country better, and be they soldiers, politicians, civil rights leaders or just the common voters, they have helped make this country what it is, and will continue to do so in future generations.