Monday, March 26, 2012

How do I describe you, Liege?

We decided it was time for another French lesson so Saturday was spent in Liege. It's an easy 40-minute drive from our house so we had plenty of time to spend in the bustling port-city. The weather was perfectly sunny with a constant cool breeze. 

We began at the Cathedrale Saint-Paul, conveniently located directly in front of us when we emerged from the parking garage. Construction began in the 13th century and continued over six centuries. The vaulting in the nave was beautiful and we wandered in during Mass. Hearing the parishioners' voices ringing through the church added an extra depth to our sightseeing. 

Our next destination was the Place Saint-Lambert, the central square of Liege. It was a 15-minute walk and we were excited to get our first good looks at the city. All of the cafes were crowded and it was such a pleasure to see so many people outside enjoying the spring day. The buildings were all interesting and  it was nice to catch glimpses of the River Meuse.

The Place Saint-Lambert wasn't exactly what I expected from a central square. I suppose I have become accustomed to seeing ancient squares surrounded by structures with beautiful facades, and perhaps a church. This square looked modern in comparison. The Palais des Princes-Eveques (Palace of the Prince-Bishops) is the focal point of the square. It was built mainly in the 18th century, which makes it seem practically brand-new in the scheme of things European.
Palais des Princes-Eveques
Place Saint-Lambert

We were getting hungry by the time we made it to the square so we consulted our travel book for suggestions. We decided on a cafe that touted traditional Liege dishes. City maps are prominently displayed throughout the city so we stopped to locate the street. We were squinting to read the tiny names and suddenly a savior appeared and asked what we were trying to find. I told her the name of the cafe and then asked her if it was good. She replied, "Well, yes. It is typical for Liege so you should try it." Of course, she had never eaten there herself but we took her advice to heart and she pointed us in the right direction.

Un boulet avec frites.
We found ourselves at Cafe-Lequet. It is recommended by almost any travel guide you can consult for Liege. It was an authentic brasserie beside the River Meuse. We shared a table with another couple and they decided to help us after they watched us struggle for several minutes. The man suggested we have un boulet avec frites. We thanked him heartily and gave our order to the gruff waitress who did not waste time attempting to speak to us in anything other than brusque French.

Our food arrived soon after we ordered Belgian beers. We immediately realized that our fellow diner's suggestion was a good one. Almost everyone was eating the same dish. It was amazing! It's a juicy meatball with a rich gravy that has hints of sweetness and lots of flavor. The pommes frites were also good-- exactly what I have come to expect from a Belgian restaurant. If you are ever in Liege, you should certainly have lunch at Cafe-Lequet. 

Another item on our list to try was peket. It's a fruit-flavored gin that is another specialty of the Walloon region. We decided to be extra-touristy and go to La Maison du Peket situated in front of City Hall. We ordered ginger and raspberry-flavored drinks. They were very refreshing and I'm not sure they were at all alcoholic but it was a nice pit-stop and maybe the perfect drink for a warm afternoon.

I'm glad we stopped for refreshments before our next adventure. We wanted to see panoramic views of the city so we made our way to the old Citadelle. This activity is not for the faint of heart. We began a gradual climb through a neighborhood, thinking at first that it wasn't so bad. Every time we turned a corner, we imagined the steps ending but they continued twisting farther and farther. Finally we reached what we thought must be the top. The view was incredible!

After catching our breaths and admiring the scene, we walked back toward the street and looked to the right. It quickly became clear that we had more steps to climb to reach the Citadelle.

Old Citadelle in the distance = More steps to the top.
We swigged some water and prepared for the next ascent, which actually wasn't too bad compared to the long and winding route we had already taken. It was absolutely stunning at the top and this is another thing you should do if you find yourself in Liege. 

Liege, from above.
We walked around the wooded trails at the top for a while. The remains of the old Citadelle were around us and there was also a World War II monument. We could see the River Meuse meandering through the city form our bird's eye view. 

We went down by way of the staircase we originally came upon. It was 373 steps to the bottom and we definitely felt a sense of accomplishment when we turned back to see where we had been.

In the end, Liege is difficult for me to describe. I think it's a nice city but I wouldn't call it charming, like Delft or Tongeren. Some areas are very gritty. The cobblestone reeks of urine, prostitutes roam the streets, drug addicts meander aimlessly, and shifty men conceal themselves in alcoves along the way. Single women are advised to take cabs after 10pm and I can understand why. I never felt threatened, but I did feel uneasy in some places. Not even the Red Light District in Amsterdam has the same effect. 

With that said, our lunch at Cafe-Lequet was one of the best we've had during our travels. People were generally friendly and it was nice to hear French since it is a familiar language for me. There are still many places for us to explore in Liege. We did not make it to the Eglise Saint-Jacques, reportedly the best church in Liege. We also didn't go to the Outremeuse, the opposite bank of the river. There are many museums to lose yourself inside and we will surely go to some of them during our next visit. 

Even though we spent a lot of time at the old Citadelle, I am glad we saw this city from that vantage point. Some of the streets might feel a little scary but any unpleasant first impressions of Liege are forgotten when standing above the city that looks so serene from the top.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012


I think it's safe to say that spring has finally arrived here! The weather has been beautiful this week and we've been going on long bicycle rides to celebrate. I must have missed the neighborhood memo regarding flower-planting during this past weekend. It seems like all of our neighbors spent Saturday constructing elaborate landscapes in their yards. Ours is still barren with too-tall grass encroaching onto the sidewalk. This reminds me of the first day it really snowed here. Apparently there is a "rule" that you must shovel the sidewalk in front of your house before 8am. I didn't realize that ours was the only one still gleaming white until lunchtime that day. My husband had to buy a shovel (and salt, for good measure) on his way home from work. I think we got some kind of credit for the salt. At least our neighbors stopped staring at our house reproachfully for a few months.

Irish beef stew, potatoes for champ,
Irish soda  bread
St. Patrick's Day wasn't a big deal here. I imagine people might still need a break from the rigors of Karneval anyway. I made a traditional Irish dinner and we invited friends over to wear green and drink Guinness. It was a fun evening and definitely worlds apart from my St. Patrick's Days in America where I would have spent all night at an Irish pub and maybe even drove to Savannah for the greening of the fountains.

Monday was the annual St. Joep Markt in Sittard. It is the oldest market in The Netherlands and lasts all day. I usually go to the market in Sittard on Thursdays. There is an abundance of produce, flowers, fresh fish, baked goods, and cheese. There are also vendors selling everything from shoes and belts to printer ink and CDs and, oddly, underwear. The St. Joep Markt was similar to Thursdays in Sittard, but on a much larger scale. Vendors filled the center and the stalls continued into the tiny side streets. Everything imaginable was being sold and there were even "Made for TV" booths with pushy salesmen convincing onlookers, "This knife is the sharpest you will ever use!" or, "See how easy it is to re-seal a package with this handy gadget? No more stale chips!" Of course, I can only assume what they were shouting since it was in Dutch but it's amazing how many things translate even if you don't understand the words.

I wanted my husband to experience the St. Joep Markt so we bicycled there later in the day. By this time, all of the cafes were crowded to standing-room only. Everyone was drinking beer and wine and people-watching. It was interesting to walk around and look at the wares for sale, enjoying the sunshine and warmer temperatures. But sometimes events like this also remind me that I'm a stranger far from home. I kept thinking about how nice it would be to join the jovial conversations around us, and how comforting it would be to see the familiar faces of friends who were saving seats for us at their table.

It's easy to become accustomed to hearing foreign languages spoken around you all day. It all eventually becomes white noise and you proceed forward with a smile frozen on your face, shoulders prepared to lift in an apologetic shrug if someone decides to speak to you and you can't infer what they're saying. But don't worry; our afternoon at St. Joep Markt had a happy ending. Eventually we were able to find seats in a cafe's courtyard and we ordered La Chouffes and Grimbergens-- lovely remedies for homesickness.

And besides, who can remain downhearted in a place as beautiful as this?

German countryside, from a bicycle path.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Delightful Delft

Delft was our destination this past Saturday. It's often described as a miniature Amsterdam because of its canals and bridges. The red-tiled houses are distinctively Dutch. Energetic bicyclists race through the cobblestone streets. Beautiful churches seem to appear on every corner and their ringing bells provide the soundtrack for a stroll through the city.

Delft is the perfect place for a day-trip. We saw everything on our list, with time to spare. We began with the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church). Its moniker is misleading because there has been a church on this site since 1381! We purchased tickets for both the church and the tower for only 12 Euro. The interior is grand, with an extraordinarily high nave and beautiful stained-glass windows. William the Silent's elaborate mausoleum is the main attraction. It is intricately carved, made of marble, and surrounded by bronze figures!

After our tour of the interior, we made our way to the tower for our 100-meter ascent. I am mildly claustrophobic and this was definitely an experience that reminded me of my fear. The ancient stairwell was a shockingly tight spiral. My heart began racing after the first few turns and I was thankful when we reached a landing. We entered a tiny room and were face-to-face with the tower clock! 

After admiring the pendulum and catching our breaths, we began climbing again. My husband got vertigo a few times so he had to stop, look up, and adjust his vision. The best technique for me seemed to be focusing on one spot, clinging to the railing (on only one side) and half-walking, half-crawling while mentally willing my legs to stop shaking. Sometimes we would encounter other visitors coming down and we would press ourselves tightly against the walls, holding on for dear life as they edged past us. We climbed and climbed and climbed. To try keep my mind off of feeling trapped in a small spire, I began thinking of its construction. This didn't help because I found myself wondering how these old, crumbling steps were holding all of our combined weights. This turned to visions of tumbling back down into the depths of the Gothic church, perhaps never to be seen again.

Thankfully, all of my worry was for naught. We finally reached the top of the tower and the view was amazing! It's said that on a clear day it's possible to see all the way to Amsterdam. 

Stadhuis (City Hall)

Our perch was very narrow but standing atop The Netherlands was a priceless moment. I've been atop the John Hancock in Chicago and I can say with absolute certainty that this wins! They are incomparable, really. You can't cheat and take the elevator at the Nieuwe Kerk.

The descent wasn't easy. Again we encountered others and had to shrink against the walls to make room. I'm grateful we did this in March instead of July. I can't imagine what this is like during the peak of tourist season! Once we were safely on the ground, we took another look at the church and were amazed by how high we stood. We were above the clock!

After a much-deserved lunch, we walked to the Oude Kerk (Old Church). Admission was included in our ticket for the New Church. The most magnificent feature of the Oude Kerk was its vaulted timber ceiling. There were also modern stained-glass windows. All depict biblical scenes except for one- the "Liberation Window." It was installed in 1956 to celebrate the expulsion of the German army at the end of WWII. Hometown boy, painter Vermeer, is also entombed here.

Next was Het Prinsenhof. This museum was originally a convent and also served as the main residence of William the Silent of Orange. This is one of the best museums we have toured. It holds the municipal art collection with works from the 16th and 17th centuries. These paintings were breathtaking and amazingly detailed. History of the convent and of the life of William the Silent is told through these depictions. Het Prinsenhof is where William was assassinated and the bullet holes are still visible.

Outside was a lovely garden with perfectly-manicured hedges. The sun was just beginning to shine through the clouds and we even saw some Dutch newlyweds using the setting as a backdrop for their photos. We briefly considered crashing the wedding but quickly decided against it when we remembered we don't speak Dutch.

Delftware on a light pole!
One of the biggest draws to Delft is, of course, Delftware. The real stuff is extremely expensive. A simple plate can cost 350 Euros or more. We went into a nice antique shop and the owner was very friendly and informative. She told us interesting facts about Delftware and then suggested her sister shop, De Porcelijne Lampetkan. Rates were slightly more reasonable and I was able to purchase a miniature vase for my mom for 35 Euros. 

And of course the other big attraction to Delft is Johannes Vermeer. The Girl with the Pearl Earring stares out at you from most of the gift shops. Not much is known about Vermeer, but he was definitely born in Delft and it is also where he died. There is a museum, the Vermeercentrum. We did not visit this because it doesn't own any of Vermeer's actual paintings! If you are a Vermeer-aholic, you might find it worth your time to pay the 6 Euros to see a short film presentation and copies of his paintings. 

We ended our tour with a stop at Doerak, a cozy pub beside a canal. My husband had a Trappist beer (the last one left on his list to try) and I enjoyed a refreshing Grimbergen. 

Delft was awesome! In many ways, it was like a mini-Amsterdam but it certainly has a distinct character of its own. Climbing the tower is a must-do. Any time the opportunity presents itself, you should definitely take advantage of seeing Europe from a bird's eye view... even if you must hyperventilate all the way to the top.