Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"God bless America! And Michael Phelps!"

The next morning was spent at the Thursday market in Sittard. The produce, fish, flowers, and bread are excellent there and the prices are unbeatable. We sipped coffee and people-watched for a couple hours and then took a stroll around the stalls.

After Sittard we moved on to Gangelt. There isn't much to say about this tiny village except that there is a cafe near the Wildlife Park that serves Bananenweizen. This is one of the first beers I drank when we moved here and it remains one of the most refreshing and unique. It sounds like a weird combination, but it's an Erdinger (or any Weissbier) mixed with chilled banana juice. It's definitely not a beer to pound back one after another but it sure is nice to languidly sip one or two on a blisteringly hot day.

Next stop was Tongeren, Beligum's oldest city. I wanted my friends to see all of the old Roman sites and the Tongeren Basilica, another of my favorite churches. The other excuse for going to Tongeren is to drop by its oldest pub, Cafe Rembrandt. We were taken there during our first month here by some great people who have, unfortunately, moved back to the states. But I think of them every time we sit down in the ancient-walled pub with its small, unsuspecting bar and creaky booths. It's perfect.

I'm always excited to see the owner there. He's very friendly and eager to suggest beers. I wanted my friends to try at least one Trappist beer while they were here. They selected wisely with Rochefort 10s. I always have the same at Cafe Rembrandt-- St. Bernardus. The owner came by several times to chat with us and offer samples of other beers. When he brought some cubes of cheese to complement the beers, he asked us if we knew why Belgians like to sprinkle the cheese with celery salt. We didn't have any ideas and he gleefully enlightened us by shouting, "It improves the sex drive, of course!"

We were having too much fun to leave so we decided to eat dinner there. I've now eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the cafe and all of the food is great. As we were finishing our meals an old man appeared with a toolbox. He and the owner exchanged pleasantries and then set to work bolting a donation box to the wall beside the bathroom for non-customers' use. He explained that the box was salvaged from an old church and he seemed very excited to have it in his possession.

The donation suggestion is 50-cents. As soon as the box was on the wall, he and the handyman stood back and admired their work. After our plates were cleared away, he brought each of us a 50-cent piece and then bowed theatrically as he said, "Please ladies, be the first ones to put a donation in the box!" We were so excited to have this 'honor' bestowed upon us and we posed for several photos as we dropped the coins.

The day was coming to a close and we'd already spent almost four hours at the cafe so it was definitely time to say our goodbyes. After we paid the bill, the owner closed the cash register with a bang, smiled broadly, and said, "God bless America! And Michael Phelps!" And with that, we were on our way back home.

The next day was the last day of my friends' visit. I don't think anyone should leave this part of Germany without seeing the Dom in Cologne so we made that our final destination. The Dom is spectacular and it literally takes your breath away when you see it rising in front of you. This was my first time taking the 533 stairs to the top. The view is obstructed by fencing and graffiti is plastered all over the gargoyles and spires. That was definitely disappointing. But it was still pleasant to see the Rhine's lazy meander through the landscape and the breeze was very welcome since it was such a hot day.

I must say that the climb to the top of the Dom wasn't as fun as going to the top of the New Church in Delft. The views are incomparable because Cologne is a more modern city now since much of it was destroyed during the war. Gazing down over Delft's red-tiled roofs and charming scenery is like looking at a beautiful and perfect painting. But you should still make the climb to the top of the Dom when you go.

More steps to climb!

Dom's Spires
We visited the Treasury after our climb and it was as interesting to me the second time around as it was the first. I love looking at all of the reliquaries and artifacts. The collection is very impressive and it really makes you feel as if you're walking back in time.

We were at the Dom most of the day and then we spent a nice couple hours walking along the river and stopping for ice cream.

My friends couldn't have chosen a more perfect week to visit. The weather was astoundingly beautiful during the entire time they were here. It was really hot most days and I don't think it rained once. We were able to go to three countries in just over a week and I can't imagine a better vacation than that!

My brother will be arriving next and I can hardly wait! He will be here for two weeks so we'll have plenty of time to eat, drink, and wander.

After my friends left, my husband returned home from being away for a month. We took a breather for a few days and then packed our bags for Croatia!

We just arrived home yesterday. It was certainly an interesting trip and I can't wait to tell you about it!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Brussels Flower Carpet

Day 5 of my friends' visit here was spent in Valkenburg and Maastricht. It was cold and dreary the last time I was in Valkenburg. The August sunshine during this visit was a nice change. Valkenburg is a tiny village but it's a mecca for tourists during the summer months. Lots of other American tourists joined us as we toured Valkenburg Castle and the Velvet Caves.

From Valkenburg we made our way to Maastricht. I love this city so much. I'd never heard of Maastricht before we moved here and I'm fairly confident that I never would have known about it otherwise. Maastricht University fills the city with people from all over the world but despite its international population, Maastricht emanates all of the charm one can expect from a cozy European town. The Vrijthof (main square) is still stunning to me, nearly ten months after my first glimpse. There are so many beautiful parks and countless cafes and the scenery is made even more picturesque by its location on the Meuse River. I feel very lucky to live so close to such an amazing city.

The only downside to the visit is that it was a Tuesday and most shops close at 6pm. After spending much of the morning and afternoon in Valkenburg, it was sad for us to bid adieu to Maastricht so soon.

Day 6 was the Brussels Flower Carpet! The Flower Carpet happens every other year on the Grand-Place. It lasts just 5 days and my friends were very fortunate to have visited during this year's display.

This was my second time in Brussels. You may recall that we spent New Year's there. While we were waiting for the fireworks, I stumbled over a low post in the Grand-Place and fell. My husband was holding my hand and, because of the dense crowd, he didn't realize I'd fallen so he continued walking. Since I was still gripping his hand tightly, I was dragged along the cobblestones for a few seconds. The moment was brief but my left knee still bares the scar from that evening in Brussels. Anyway, the second time around was without injury.

The flower carpet was amazing. I can't imagine all of the work that goes into the planning, design, and execution of such an overwhelming display. We went to the top of Town Hall to see the carpet from above. It cost five Euros but it was money well-spent.

Palais Royal de Bruxelles
After the carpet and some lunch we decided to go to the Palais Royal de Bruxelles. The palace is only open to visitors two months out of the year. Admission was free and lots of people were taking advantage of the open house. I was disappointed to learn that the royal family do not actually live in this palace. Their official residence is in Laeken, outside Brussels.

I think it's quite obvious that people don't actually live in the palace. The interior is extremely formal and almost sterile. The rooms we were allowed to pass by looked as if they had been undisturbed for years. The chandeliers were beautiful and the final room, the Mirror Room, was very interesting. The ceiling is decorated with over a million jewel beetle carapaces. The room is a huge contrast to the rest of the palace; it almost seemed like it would fit right in as a setting for The Addams Family.

Brussels was bustling and breathtaking. I'm so glad my friends were able to see the flower carpet. The Grand-Place is one of the most beautiful squares I've ever seen and I can't wait to return with my brother when he visits in a few weeks!

Monday, August 20, 2012

"I will call the police! And the Army!"

The past week-and-a-half has been a complete whirlwind. Friends from back home were here for six days and we went to Amsterdam, Valkenburg, Maastricht, Cologne, Brussels, Aachen, Tongeren, and, it seems, everywhere in between.

First stop: Amsterdam. My friends arrived early Friday morning in Dusseldorf. After a brief nap we took the train to Amsterdam. When the conductor came by to check our tickets, he raised an eyebrow as he handed mine back to me and said, "Amsterdaaaaaam." He repeated the gesture with my friends' tickets and as he continued down the aisle he laughed heartily and exclaimed, "Three wild women going to Amsterdam for the weekend! I will call the police! And the Army!" I thought that was a really good beginning for our weekend.

Our hotel was the Botel on the Amstel River. Since there were three of us, we had to find a triple room at a price that wasn't going to bust our wallets. The Botel was the best option and I thought it would be interesting to stay in the floating hotel. Interesting isn't quite the word I would use to describe it in retrospect.

Bunk beds in the Botel.
First of all, we took the wrong ferry across the river and ended up really far away from the Botel. After walking around aimlessly for a few minutes we asked a kind passerby for help and he directed us back over the river to another ferry. Once we were on the correct ferry, a 10-minute ride across the murky river brought us to the Botel. Emblazoned upon its side was a large banner advertising the cheap rooms ("Free TV!"). We checked into our room and were surprised to see bunk beds... I got the one on top. The bathroom was the same size as the one you'd find in a small motorhome. Showers were spent dodging the alternating scalding hot and frigid bursts of water from the shower as you desperately tried to keep the dingy shower curtain from rubbing up against your body.

But who goes to Amsterdam to spend the entire time in the hotel anyway? All we did was sleep there and it actually wasn't too bad (aside from heat and humidity inside the room and being kept awake all night by the desperate cries of swans outside the cabin window).

We missed our dinner reservation for Friday night because of the ferry debacle but we ended up at a nice place that served excellent fondue and decent wine. We called it in early so we could begin Saturday bright and early.

The last time I saw Amsterdam was in the winter and I thought it was beautiful then but it was magnificent in the summer sun. All of the outdoor cafes were open and boats filled with people sipping wine and eating cheese floated on the canals. It was truly lovely.

This was my third time at the Anne Frank House. While I do think it's an important stop for anyone visiting Amsterdam the first time, I don't think it's necessary to see it more than once. And especially not three times in nine months. August was much more crowded than back during winter and as we weaved our way around inside I found myself wanting to snap my fingers and hurry people along as I shouted, "Yep, there's the bookcase. Here's the kitchen. This was her room. Keep it moving." Next time I'm entertaining friends from back home, I think I'll sit it out and wait at a cafe.

We spent lots of time walking around the city and stopping for photos of the scenery. Lunch was eaten beside one of the canals and we also took a stroll through the Red Light District (during the afternoon) and window-shopped in the Jordaan neighborhood.

We happened upon an amazing tapas place called Manzano and that's where we settled for dinner. The courtyard was charming and the price was right for two liters of sangria, six or seven tapas, and a huge dessert tray we shared. We also threw in some mojitos for good measure. It was a little off the beaten path but definitely worth the walk.

After some Belgian beers at another cafe, we retired to our floating hotel with full bellies and slightly dizzy heads. Those two attributes made it a little easier to fall asleep to the swaying of the river and the  squawking of the swans.

We left early Sunday morning and spent the rest of the day relaxing at home, planning our itinerary for the rest of the week.

Monday's destination was Aachen. It's a quick drive from here and we spent a pleasant day walking around the town and admiring its beautiful cathedral (still one of my all-time favorites). Dinner was closer to home, in Sittard.

We were only on Day 4 with much more ahead, but I'll leave those adventures for next time!

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Few Minor Setbacks

Friends, I'm writing to you from an unexpected location today. I'm not sipping wine by the shores of the Mediterranean. I'm also not sitting in a pub in Scotland or touring a vineyard in Italy. I'm at the local library. Yesterday my loyal laptop of over six years decided it was time to call it a life. It crashed and burned in the middle of a Skype session with my mom.

What else has happened since our return from Ireland? Well, my bicycle was stolen. Poor Arline was snatched from a train station. A new bike is on order. It should have been here at the beginning of the week but it's now Friday and I'm still waiting. I feel truly enculturated into Dutch society now that I've experienced the loss of a bicycle. I suppose it was only a matter of time.

In spite of recent setbacks, the German "summer" days are passing along and I can't believe it's already August. Sometimes the weather is nice and sunny; we've even had several UV index warnings. But after getting a sunburn on Monday it's possible to wake up to dreary skies and a 15-degree temperature drop on Wednesday. I remember how nice and somewhat constant the weather was when we arrived in October and I'm hoping for the same when it comes around again.

In the meantime I'm preparing for visits from some friends and my brother in the next two months. It's very exciting to have people to show around and it will be fun to see everything anew from fresh sets of eyes.

So RIP to my laptop and Arline. Hopefully nothing else is stolen or breaks for a while!