Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Visiting Lenin and Having a Drink (and food)

Our first full day in Moscow began with a normal (but overpriced) breakfast at the hotel. Then we consulted our city map, donned heavy winter gear, and prepared to scratch off more things on our "To-Do" list. The first thing on the agenda was to visit a well-preserved corpse. You might be familiar with the deceased. He went by the name of Vladimir Lenin.

We anticipated long lines but it was early in the morning and we only had to wait at the outside gate for a few minutes before passing through to the next checkpoint. We had to surrender all of our bags and the contents of our pockets. Absolutely no cell phones or any type of camera are allowed inside the mausoleum. We went through another set of metal detectors leading into the area around the tomb. Some people were patted down by armed police or military guards.

The first thing you see are a long line of tombs, Stalin's included. His bust tops a pillar rising up from the ground. His is accompanied by the busts of other important Russians. I confess I didn't recognize many of the names. We passed through the stone graveyard respectfully and wound our way around the granite structure housing the tomb. Several wide steps lead to the entrance where a young military guard stands erect. As we entered, he kept his eyes forward and gestured our next steps with his right hand lifted toward a long hallway. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness of the tomb, even though it was a very overcast day. The interior was eerily illuminated with soft, red lighting. At the end of the hallway stood another guard. This time it was his left hand we followed as we rounded the corner. This corridor was shorter and we met with one final guard who stood at the entrance to Lenin's tomb.

Lenin's Tomb

I'm not sure how to describe this moment. First, it was extremely quick. We walked around the tomb, joined by a couple of Asian tourists. Since it was just us, the setting was extremely intimate and I almost felt as if I was somehow intruding. For a man who's been on display since 1924, I'd say Lenin is in pretty good shape. It looks like his hands may have shrunk over time and, to be expected, the appearance of his body is very waxy and mannequin-like. He looks to be in peaceful repose, with his hands neatly touching at his waist, his tidy mustache and beard giving a sense that, at any moment, he will open his eyes, sit up, and ask what he's doing in this crypt.

We took a quick lap around the tomb and then made our way out, guided once again by the guards. It all happened so fast. I think the amount of time, from the moment we left our belongings at the lockers and went through security, to the second we emerged at the gates, took a total of 10-12 minutes. It was certainly surreal. So many thoughts went through my mind. I was impressed by how heavily and respectfully guarded it was, how regal Lenin looks, and then after these thoughts some immaturity surfaced as I shuddered and said to my husband, "Oh my God!! A dead body! We just saw a dead body!!!"

After I made this astute observation, I took a photo of my husband in front of the tomb (outside of the gates). As I pulled the camera away from my eyes, I noticed two old women who I assume were mother and daughter. The mother looked like she was in her nineties and her daughter seemed to be about twenty years younger. They had just emerged from the tomb and were holding onto each other, crying softly and wiping tears from their eyes. In that moment I remembered that a visit to Lenin's tomb is much more than a thing to cross of a "To-Do" list for some. Obviously these were Russian women who came to solemnly pay their respects to Lenin. Who knows what they've experienced in their long lives, during the past ninety years of Russian history? Whatever it has been, they wanted to visit Lenin and weep over his earthly remains.

I was sobered by their tears. There wasn't really too much left to say after the whole experience so we did the only thing you can do when you feel too sober; we found a bar.

Che is a bar and restaurant named in honor of Che Guevara. We located it quickly and were greeted by a distinguished man in a dark grey suit. When we spoke English, he looked very taken aback and a female hostess emerged, recovering for him. As we followed her into the dining room, I glanced back and saw him still standing in the doorway, motionless, with his arms half-raised.

In general, in restaurants and cafes, at least one person spoke English. Most of the time it was halting but they seemed genuinely curious about us. We were asked many times, by incredulous people, "Where do you come from?" Sometimes it wasn't immediately clear to them that we were American. They thought we were British or Australian so it was even more shocking to them when we replied, "Chicago and Florida."

We were given menus (in Cyrillic) so we just ordered two beers. We think they were Russian beers but we can't be sure. They were brought to us hastily, large steins filled with frothy deliciousness. We were the only patrons for a while. The staff gathered at the bar at one point and stole clandestine looks at us. It was apparent that they were curious and amused. I wanted to explain, "We're having beers at 11am because we just saw Lenin! His dead body!" But I didn't really know if this would go over very well. Eventually a businessman joined us in the restaurant. He was immaculately-dressed and was promptly served soup and bread. He ate his food methodically while watching a Discovery Channel show dubbed in Russian, projected on a big screen at the head of the bar.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Eventually we paid and rejoined the world of the living. We were just in time for the Changing of the Guard, so we gathered with the crowd forming in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Soon a clock began to chime the hour and we heard the steady clomping of soldiers' shoes marching toward us. The soldiers performed the ceremony with the Eternal Flame burning steadily behind them.

Eternal Flame

Changing of the Guard

Next, we strolled through the Bolshoi District which wasn't quite what we expected. Walking through the streets was interesting. There were throngs of people but it was very quiet. The people we passed didn't betray any emotions, their eyes gazed forward as they purposefully strode toward their destinations. Another thing that makes walking through Moscow interesting is the amount of armed guards. Sentries casually brandishing machine guns stood outside innocuous-looking buildings frequently. It was quite shocking to suddenly come upon street barricades and military police but it happened often. Of course the Muscovites took no notice of the security because they are accustomed to it and probably comforted by it.

Delicatessen Restaurant
After our exploration of the Bolshoi District, we set off to find a well-hidden restaurant. It's called Delicatessen and the journey to reach it was long and cold. One must step off a main street into what looks like an alley. The alley leads to a courtyard and the restaurant still proves difficult to find once the secluded courtyard is reached. If you walk straight, you'll go too far. You must return to the entrance of the courtyard, veer a hard left, and then wind your way around the corner. At last, a funky little building emerges with a gracious sign above the entrance that reads, "Thank you for finding us."

It was a bustling place on a cold October afternoon. We passed the beautiful antique bar and were seated at a wooden table in the back portion of the restaurant. A waitress came to take our drink order and asked simply if we would like hot or cold. We chose cold and were brought two glasses of fruit juice. She then returned for our food order and asked if we would like lunch or the menu. We were a little confused so we replied, "Lunch?" She swiftly walked away and returned a few minutes later with bowls of steaming homemade chicken noodle soup paired with soft, chewy bread. The bowls were cleared away as soon as we slurped the last bits of soup from them. The next course was some type of rice with seafood, almost like a paella. Finally, we were served a dessert that resembled a pound cake in texture and taste, with little bits of candied apricot baked throughout. We decided to finish with some vodka (we were in Russia, after all), and we were in luck because Delicatessen serves some interesting infused vodkas. I chose cherry-flavored while my husband went with pine nut.

The walk back to our hotel was also long and cold. We put up our feet for a while before we made our way back out into the frigid evening for dinner. We were looking for a particular restaurant and after searching for several minutes on the correct street, we finally realized that our intended destination had been replaced by another dining establishment, The Blue Cat. We didn't have anywhere else in mind so we decided to settle there for the evening. It turned out to be a very good choice.

The atmosphere inside was bright and intimate. Only two other couples joined us as we dined decadently on fish, steak, and rabbit. The French wine was excellent and the service was great. My husband's dessert was the piece-de-resistance- a chocolate lava cake bursting with a bleu cheese concoction, a dish he describes as "insanely good."

Dining at The Blue Cat was one of those happy cases where you didn't find quite what you were looking for, but you're pleasantly surprised and extremely satisfied by the place you ended up anyway.

Next on the agenda is our grand tour of the Kremlin. It was a fun and informative way to spend our final day in Moscow, especially since a visiting royal from another county made a surprise appearance!

Until next time, spasiba for reading!

Lenin's Tomb at Night

Friday, November 8, 2013

Lasting First Impressions: Moscow

The process for an American to travel to Russia is an extensive one. We had to part with our passports for about a month, wait on visas and letters of invitation, and brush up on our Cyrillic (ha ha). For us, this was a trip of a lifetime. I didn't know what to expect and I suppose I had some preconceptions about Russia, gleaned from stereotypical films and books. I imagined vast and snowy Siberian landscapes, vodka-fueled citizens buttoning up their coats against frigid temperatures, and lots of sturdy men who may or may not be members of the mafia.

We visited Moscow, an undeniably modern city where fashionable me and women commute to work on the efficient metro, cafes and restaurants are filled with customers, and children amble happily alongside their doting babushkas. I felt more than a little ridiculous for my initial concerns about what I would see on the streets of Moscow. Clearly, it's a city like many others, filled with normal people doing normal things.

With that said, I wouldn't exactly describe the ambience as decidedly cheerful. It was early October when we visited and the temperatures were almost below freezing. Many vehicles were already equipped with heavy-duty snow tires and I recall seeing the sun for only a few short hours throughout our 4-day stay.

During our hour-and-a-half ride from the airport to the hotel at rush hour, many of the apartment buildings on the outskirts of Moscow were a little depressing. Often, huge modern skyscrapers loomed over the bleak, colorless lodgings. Hopeful boxes were attached to some of the windows, eagerly awaiting the arrival of sliveres of sunshine to make flowers bloom. But I'm just judging from the outside, of course. I hope the interiors of the homes are bright and happy.

We finally reached the hotel, thanks to our daring taxi driver who stoically zigzagged through stop-and-go traffic with no discernible lanes. Once we reached the heart of the city we had a few narrow misses with large construction trucks and elderly women bravely crossing streets, stooped over their canes and dressed for the possibility of an unexpected blizzard. I really thought we were going to take one of them out; luckily the driver swerved at the last minute. I got the feeling that all of this was just a normal day's work for him.

We stayed at the Mercure Hotel close to the Arbat, one of the Moscow's oldest-surviving streets. After checking in and freshening up, we headed off to dinner. There's a restaurant for any taste you might crave. The amount of sushi places really stood out to me and there were a few chains familiar and welcoming to any American (Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, Hard Rock Cafe, and even a Johnny Rockets). We settled on Akademiya, an unremarkable Moscow chain restaurant. Some of the staff spoke English and I was surprised to see English translations on the menu.

One thing I always heard about Moscow did prove to be true. Everything is expensive. From hotels and food, to admission fees and souvenirs; prepare to bring a fattened wallet and watch it quickly dwindle.

Night had fallen by the time we finished our dinner but we had a very important destination in mind before we went back to the hotel. No trip to Moscow is complete without seeing the Kremlin and Red Square. We devoted our final day in Moscow to exploring the sights in-depth but we didn't want to miss out on an opportunity to experience them at night.

I couldn't stop taking photos. The brick-red of the Kremlin Wall seemed to glow under the lights. It felt like we were the only ones there, aside from stern guards who materialized from the shadows every now and then. Workers were toiling away at preparations for the Sochi Olympics. A grand stage and bleachers had been set against the backdrop of the Kremlin.

We walked around in silent awe for a few minutes and then found ourselves beholding St. Basil's Cathedral. I've seen photos of it my whole life but it was indescribably breathtaking to be standing in Moscow and seeing it with my very own eyes. The architecture is so unique and I loved the brilliant colors of the domes. It was truly magical at night.

Our first evening in Moscow was at its end. Though we'd only been in the city a few short hours, it was a lot to digest and I couldn't wait to experience more of Moscow's surprises.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Sweet Ending in Cochem

The final stop on our long weekend road trip in Germany was Cochem.

A funny thing happened on the way. Blanche, my overworked GPS, was on her best behavior. We were pleasantly rolling along on major highways when we decided to top off our gas tank. I redirected Blanche to the nearest gas station, which she claimed was less than 5-km from where we were. We pulled off onto an exit for a small village and continued following Blanche, marveling over the beautiful landscape of the town as we passed vineyards and drove alongside a river.

When we were less than 1.5-km from the gas station, Blanche's voice suddenly went from confident to questioning as she proclaimed, "Drive 500-meters, then board ferry?!" And I'm not kidding; that's exactly the way she said it: "Board ferry?!" Evidently, the gas station was on the other side of the river and even Blanche thought it was odd that we would postpone our road trip for at least 20 minutes in order to board a ferry, ride the ferry, de-board, fill up on gas, and then repeat the process.

Needless to say, we decided to forego the ferry-boarding and found our way back to the highway (with Blanche's eager assistance).


Arriving in Cochem was very scenic. We crossed a bridge over the Mosel River, trailed by bicyclists and pedestrians who meandered along languidly. The cafes were filled as revelers clinked wine glasses and laughed gaily. Rising above it all was the imposing and beautiful Cochem Castle.

Cochem Castle above Vineyards
We found our small guesthouse along a narrow, winding street in the center of town. Cochem was packed with visitors! I can only imagine it was due to the mild, sunny weather and the arrival of Federweiss. We first encountered this wine when we were in Nuremberg. There was a busy little kiosk in the city center and we had to try it since we'd never seen it.

It was described to us by the winemakers as a very young wine that is still fermenting. You can drink it right away or store it for a couple of weeks, during which time the fermentation process will continue and the wine will gain more alcohol content. It was very refreshing and light, as to be expected. The taste was sweet but more like a sweet fruit juice rather than a sweet wine (like Riesling). We immediately fell in love and bought a half-liter for three Euros. It's the perfect brunch beverage.

We soon learned we didn't have to be so quick to purchase in Nuremberg; Federweiss was everywhere in Cochem! Little tastes were offered on almost every corner for 50-cents and each one tasted a little different. It was lots of fun sampling and comparing. Federweiss is only around during the autumn harvest so I'm glad we were in the Mosel region (by chance) this time of year.

Delftware Fireplace
Our next order of business was to visit Cochem Castle. It was built in 1000 A.D. by the Franconian Palatine counts. The castle was destroyed in 1689 by French soldiers and was in ruins for the next 200 years. Then, Louis Ravene, a rich merchant from Berlin, reconstructed Cochem Castle according to its original plans. Today the interior is that of a 19th-century chateau and the castle belongs to the town of Cochem (since 1978).

Knights' Hall

A tour of the castle lasts about 45 minutes. It's all in German but we were given an English guidebook to follow. We wandered through grand rooms beginning with the Dining Hall and ending with the Weapons Room. The castle is filled with treasures such as a fireplace decorated by Delftware, 16th-century furniture, and a painting of a Greek goddess.

My favorite room was the "Room Above the Last Gate." In this room hangs a mermaid chandelier. It's a symbolic figure to keep evil out of the castle. The guide suggested all of us touch the bottom of it for luck. One exits the room via a spiral staircase that winds the wrong way. This was to prevent any aggressors coming up the staircase from using their sword (carried in the right hand) to any great effect.

Mermaid Chandelier

Outside we saw the old well, which is 150-ft deep. The Witch's Tower is the final landmark of the tour. The round tower survived the destruction of 1689. There are remnants of red paints beneath one of the windows, leading researchers to believe that the castle in the Middle Ages must have been very colorful. A huge mosaic representing St. Christopher adorns the west side of the main tower.

Witch's Tower

After our tour, we walked back down to the village, passing through vineyards and strolling by half-timbered houses. From our bird's eye view at the castle, we noticed a chair lift in the distance. We found the entrance to the Cochemer Sesselbahn quickly. Having only "skied" once in my life (it's in quotations because my attempt was a complete failure; I'm from Florida!!), I've never been on an actual chair lift. I was a little nervous because the safety bars seemed awfully flimsy and I was the kid who was scared on the ferris wheel at the county fair every year. But I faced my fears and I'm glad I did. The ride was peaceful and we were able to have Federweiss one more time at the cafe at the top!

Cochemer Sesselbahn

Cochem Castle from Sesselbahn

Cochem is a delightful little village, definitely worth a stopover if you're ever in the Mosel Valley. If I were you, I'd try to make the trip during the fall season when the leaves are just beginning to turn, the days are becoming shorter, the smell of smoke from cozy fireplaces fills the air, and Federweiss is practically being given away everywhere you turn. Seriously, go for the Federweiss. And visit the castle, too.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Wandering in Wurzburg

A two-hour drive from Nuremberg brought us to Wurzburg. Wurzburg is a lively university town that serves as the beginning (or end) of the Romantic Road. The Main River cuts through the center of the town and lush vineyards dot the hillsides. The Residenz Palace and Marienberg Fortress complete the fairy-tale backdrop.

Dom St. Killian

After checking in to our bed and breakfast, we used the efficient tram system to reach the center of town. Two landmarks that tower over Wurzburg are the Dom St. Killian and St. Mary's Church. Dom St. Killian is the fourth-largest Romanesque church in Germany. It was rebuilt after a fire destroyed it during the war in 1945. Exterior reconstruction was carried out according to the original.

St. Mary's Church
I thought St. Mary's Church was really unique due to its red-and-white exterior and Gothic-style. It was built in the 14th and 15th centuries by the citizens of Wurzburg. It holds a prime position on the Marktplatz, the city's liveliest square.

After a brief overview of Wurzburg we decided to quell our hunger pangs with a dinner at Ratskeller Wurzburg. The offering was typically German: bratwurst, sauerkraut, potatoes. The shining star of the meal was the extensive wine list. I settled on a Rotling, wine made from a blend of red and white grapes. It was similar in color to a Rose with a perfect balance of sweet and dry. I quickly consumed two glasses and left the restaurant with a hankering for more.

An Appropriate Amount of Rotling
for 2.
I was in luck. We began a romantic stroll across the Old Main Bridge and noticed lots of people gathered around the center. As we moved closer, we realized they were in line outside of a restaurant. A young woman stood at a window, patiently filling wine glasses as a never-ending queue waited to sip their libations. We promptly got in line and decided we'd better order two glasses each because we didn't want to have to wait in the line again.

Armed with our four glasses of Rotling, we staked out a spot at the center of the bridge. The atmosphere surrounding us was jovial. We talked and laughed, enjoying the sounds of all of the other laughter and conversation even though it was all in German. The Main River flowed swiftly below us while the Marienberg Fortress towered over Wurzburg.

Marienberg Fortress over Wurzburg

The next day we were in a time-crunch again. We had to choose between the Residenz palace and the fortress. We decided on the fortress. Climbing to its perch over the town gave us the opportunity to burn off all of our Rotling calories.

Marienberg Fortress
Marienberg Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Beginning in 1250, it was the seat of the Wurzburg bishops. They enlarged the medieval castle, transforming it initially into a fortified Renaissance palace and finally into a baroque fortress.

Vineyards surround the huge complex of buildings, including an 8th-century church (St. Mary's Church-- not to be confused with St. Mary's Chapel inside Wurzburg). St. Mary's Church is one of the oldest in Germany.

St. Mary's Church

I was most impressed by the Princes' Garden, which probably dates back to the early 16th century. Flanked by beautiful balustrades and balconies, it's one of the most picturesque gardens I've ever seen. The flower designs were colorful and ornate and the views of the city were amazing. Wurzburg looked like a perfect, miniature German town from that height.

Our time was up far too soon. I would definitely return, driving the length of the Romantic Road to wonderful Wurzburg.

Sometimes all it takes to make a city is a stroll in a beautiful garden. And a wine bar on a bridge.

"The Most German of All Cities"

We've finally made it to the Bavarian portion of Germany! Last week we took a long road trip that brought us to Nuremberg. It was a whirlwind visit because we had only a day-and-a-half but we made the most of it.

When I hear Nuremberg, the first thing that comes to mind are the Nuremberg Trials. Adolf Hitler called Nuremberg "the most German of all cities." While much of our trip centered around the history of the rise of the Nazi party, we found that there is much more to see in this modern metropolis.

Our arrival late in the afternoon allowed for a quick stroll through the Old Town as we made our way to the Bratwurst-Hausle for an early dinner. This most famous bratwurst house in the city has been grilling Nurnberger Rostbratwurst since 1313. The wurst was perfection and the accompanying sauerkraut was the best I've had! Wash it all down with a few Tucher Hefeweizens on draft and I'd say that's a pretty tasty German dinner.

Beautiful Fountain
Rising up 62 feet in the main square is the Beautiful Fountain. It was built between 1389 and 1396. Its intricate design boasts forty stone figures and a couple of lucky charms. There are two rings on opposite sides of the fountain. The most noticeable one is "for the tourists" and the other, more difficult to find, is for the locals. Make a wish, rotate the ring three full turns, and your wish will come true. Here's the catch: some sources say turning the ring will make you lucky in love while others warn that if a woman turns the ring she will become pregnant. I'm not sure what will happen in our case because we were greedy and we each turned both rings three times. Between us, we are either going to be very lucky in love or very pregnant. 

After sealing our fates (whatever they may be), we headed for the Kaiserburg (Imperial Castle) looming grandly above the city. It is one of the most important imperial palaces of the Middle Ages. A Salian royal castle was built on the spot as early as the 11th century. The Kaiserburg was the official residence of the German kings and emperors from 1050 to 1571. It's a very easy walk to the terraces and you are rewarded with a fantastic view of Nuremberg's skyline.

Nuremberg at Night

The next morning we were excited to see Nuremberg in the daylight. We made our way back to the main square, to the Church of St. Lawrence. Construction began in 1270 and lasted for more than 200 years. It's a beautiful Gothic church with soaring pillars and magnificent stained-glass.

We decided to wait around until noon for a little show that happens every day at the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). A gilded 16th-century mechanical clock called Little Men Running performs every day at 12pm. When the clock tolls, figures of the seven Electors appear and pay homage to Emperor Karl IV. It was a charming sight to see and we were among about 50 other people gathered to watch.


Little Men Running

We didn't have much time left in Nuremberg before our road trip continued so we moved from sweet to sobering as we drove over to the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelande - the Nazi Party Rally Grounds Documentation Center. A visit to Nuremberg is incomplete without at least an afternoon, and possibly a full day, spent immersed in a chronological overview of the rise of Nazism. 

It's impossible to convey how much information is displayed within the Center, housed in the unfinished remains of the Congress Hall. The permanent exhibition is appropriately named "Fascination and Terror." Everything is written in German but the audio guides are wonderfully informative as you move from room to room, passing images of smitten teenage girls fawning over Hitler, haunting photos of atrocities at concentration camps, and films showcasing construction of the massive Rally Grounds in Nuremberg. The size of the complex is mind-blowing. Aerial photos are almost unreal.

Panoramic of Unfinished Congress

Luitpold Grove Park
We spent almost 3 hours in stunned silence inside the Center. Afterward, we walked across the street to Luitpold Grove Park. The City of Nuremberg erected a monument in the park during the Weimar Republic (1919-33). The monument was intended to commemorate the 9,855 Nuremberg soldiers killed during WWI. During the 1929 Party Rally, the Nazis incorporated the then-unfinished Hall of Honor in their staging of the cult of the dead. Hitler commemorated the fallen soldiers of WWI and the "Martyrs of the NS Movement." The ritual was intended to commit the "party soldiers" present to sacrificing their lives for the "Fuhrer" and for National Socialism. In 1933, Hitler had the park remodeled into the Luitpold Arena for the Party Rallies.

Ehrenhalle - Hall of Honor Now

Ehrenhalle Then

After 1945, Nuremberg turned the area back into a park. Today the Hall of Honor commemorates the victims of WWI and WWII, as well as the victims of the National Socialist rule of terror.

As we drove away from Nuremberg, my husband commented that he was glad we saw the city the way we did: initially our view was untainted, just another German town with a castle and some interesting churches - then, as the stark base of Hitler's rise to power.

In the end, I think Nuremberg has done a great deal to pay homage to the victims of Hitler's reign. His 'glorious' complex hovers unfinished in a time past but not forgotten, incomplete but still standing to serve as a constant reminder of the unimaginable.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Gilded Ghent

I hosted a long-awaited visitor last week-- my mom! I've been waiting for her to come to Europe for the past two years, and she's been waiting to cross the big pond for much longer. I gave her a whirlwind tour of some of my favorite places in The Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium. We had a wonderful time and the weather was on its best behavior. I only wish she could have stayed longer but I'm grateful for the time we had together, and for being able to celebrate her birthday with her for the first time in three years!

Out of all of the cities we visited, the only one I hadn't been to yet was Ghent in Belgium. It seems as if Ghent always comes up in a discussion regarding Bruges. You tell someone, "Oh, I just got back from Bruges! It was lovely!" If they have been to Ghent, their response might be, "Bruges? Well, sure, Bruges is nice but Ghent is where you should really go!"

I do love Bruges but I'd just visited for the second time a few months ago so I decided to take Mom somewhere neither of us had been. Ghent offered the possibility of new adventures and I was also ready to settle the 'Ghent vs. Bruges' debate once and for all.

We took the train from Maastricht early one morning. Once we arrived, we hailed a taxi that drove us to our hotel: the Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof. It's one of those artsy/designy/deco-ish places with garish animal-print covered chairs, wacky chandeliers, and color-blocked carpet that has the special power to make you feel dizzy and get you lost in never-ending corridors. It was sort of like being on the set of Beetlejuice. I loved it. The price was right (for a Monday night) and the location was perfect. All of the staff were kind and the room was large by European standards. I think the fares rise significantly during the weekend but if you find yourself in Ghent during an off-day, it's a great choice.

After we checked in to the hotel, we set off to find out what makes Ghent so special (and more special than Bruges, according to some). Our first view of Ghent, from St. Michael's Bridge, wasn't disappointing.

After a quick lunch of Flemish beef stew, we decided to visit Gravensteen Castle, or Castle of the Counts. I was really excited to visit a castle that's still so intact, and right in the center of a bustling city. The foreboding facade made me feel small and vulnerable as we approached. Gravensteen was built in 1180 with all of the amenities necessary in the Middle Ages.

Gravensteen Castle

The MTV Cribs episode would go something like this:
"Hi, I'm Count Philip of Alsace. Welcome to my crib. Don't mind the screams from the dungeons- ha ha! To the left is the gatehouse, which also served as a temporary prison. And here's the torture chamber, an obligatory addition to any medieval crib. This is the banquet hall where the countess and me hang out and host parties. And these are the toilets, should the need arise. Do you want to see what's in my fridge or would you rather tour the underground prison first?"

Master Bathroom

Throne Room
I really enjoyed the views of Ghent from the battlements of Gravensteen. It was easy to imagine myself back in the Middle Ages, knights and maidens wandering around the endless corridors. The size of the castle was what really struck me the most. It was obviously a very powerful stronghold in its time. 

After our time travel, we strolled through the Patershol quarter, an important area of the city during the Middle Ages that has experienced a renaissance during the past 30 years. It's a lovely, quiet district that is now mainly residential and boasts a few Michelin-starred restaurants.

Back in the city center, the Castle of Gerald the Devil is a must-see for architecture aficionados. It was constructed in the 13th century by a villain named Gerald. He was called "the devil" because of his dark appearance. The castle has worn many hats over the centuries. It's been a knights' residence, monastery, orphanage, school, fire station, and madhouse-- and that's just to name a few. Today, the Castle of Gerald the Devil is home to the State Archives. 
We also visited Saint Bavo's Cathedral. It dates back to the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist in 942. The church underwent rebuilding during the 14th to 16th centuries. What we see today is very close to the way it looked in the mid-16th century. Restoration of the tower began this past May. It's projected to take five years. It was a little disappointing that the facade was covered in scaffolding but I suppose centuries-old cathedrals need some serious repairs every few decades.

Saint Bavo's Cathedral
The major draw for tourists to Saint Bravo's Cathedral is housed in a tiny chapel off to the side. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is an altarpiece painted in 1432 by the famous Van Eyck brothers. Jan van Eyck is considered one of the best Northern European painters of the 15th century. He paired up with his older brother, Hubert, to create the masterpiece some regard as the first great oil painting. We paid a few Euros to see the painting in all its glory. The altarpiece dominated the tiny chapel and throngs of hushed tourists gazed upon it in awed silence. It's all original, except for the 'Just Judges' panel that was stolen in 1934. NPR has a very good article regarding the piece: Is This the World's Most Coveted Painting? 

Van Eyck Bros. Monument
We visited the Design Museum the next morning before we left for Brussels. It mainly offers 20th century and modern-day exhibitions. The focus is on furniture and home accessories. I think it's probably a young design student's dream. Everything from porcelain and china to vases and chandeliers are displayed in the airy interior of the museum. It's nothing you would expect to see housed inside an 18th century building. My favorite collection was in the basement, an exhibition of sheet music illustrated by Peter de Greef. He was a Belgian designer of musical scores between the 1920's and 50's. 

I thought Ghent was lovely. I don't really know a way to compare or contrast it with Bruges. It's more fun and interesting to visit a new place without having expectations or opinions about it based upon somewhere else. Both cites are charming and picturesque in their own ways.

I think, if you're in the position to be judging Bruges and Ghent against each other, you are a very fortunate person because you've been able to walk along the canal-lined streets of both beautiful cities. Savor it, world traveler. You're luckier than most.