Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Polo in the Vrijthof

As you can imagine from my last entry about TEFAF, Maastricht has earned a well-deserved reputation for being a little hoity-toity. A friend who lives in Maastricht just moved to a different apartment and their Dutch movers (who weren't from Maastricht) even commented about how "snobby" Maastricht is. I still love Maastricht despite the pretentiousness because every once in a while you can join in on the festivities-- for free!

We met some friends Sunday for brunch, tapas-style, at La Bodega. It had snowed over night so the streets were emptier than usual for an early Sunday afternoon in Maastricht. That suited us just fine because we were mainly in town to see polo in the Vrijthof and we wanted a good view. The "City Polo" event took place to coincide with the last weekend of TEFAF. Apparently it was the first time that a city center has ever hosted a polo match.

Being from a small, one-horse town (and believe me, that horse did not play polo), I am not familiar with the game. I don't know the rules and, before Sunday, I'd never seen a polo match. I wore a blazer because I thought that seemed equestrian-chic and I conjured images of Prince William bouncing along atop a galloping horse and I figured that was all the preparation I really needed.

Because of the snow and frigid, windy conditions, the Vrijthof wasn't crowded and we were able to stand right up against the arena for a close-up of the action. The commentary leading up to the match was in Dutch so we mostly just cheered and applauded when everyone else did. Finally the match was about to begin and all of a sudden a booming British voice echoed over the square.

"'allo Ladies and Gents, and welcome to the first-ever City Polo Maastricht! I'm your announcer, straight from the UK! Here we are in lovely Maastricht, the only town that builds two churches right next to each other. If you don't believe me, just listen to the bells!" The crowd's response to the boisterous emcee was a little lackluster so the emcee took it upon himself to provide one of the most colorful commentaries of a sporting event that I've ever heard. It was hilarious.

He christened a Belgian rider "The Muscles from Brussels." Any time he would score a point, the announcer would yell, "And here comes The Muscles from Brussels!" Then he would add something like, "He's from the country that brought us waffles, exquisite chocolate, and Jean-Claude Van Damme!"

I'm sure all of the Dutch people understood him perfectly well but it was our little group of Americans that
were guffawing and applauding whenever he would make a pun. I freely admit that I think I would have become bored rather quickly had it not been for his hilarious play-by-play.

Hilarious Commentator

After someone scored, he exclaimed, "And another score for the home team! The crowd is roaring!" The crowd definitely wasn't roaring and I'm pretty sure he was just amusing himself at this point because he then said, "Bras and panties everywhere!"

And his best line of the match was, "And now the horses are being prepared with some foreplay. The best kind of play is foreplay." I don't know who hired him but they're a genius.

Enjoy some photos of our posh (and slightly bawdy) afternoon at City Polo Maastricht!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

TEFAF Time in Maastricht

I love Maastricht. We're very fortunate to be so close to such a cosmopolitan city. It has everything: a thriving university, bustling squares, amazing restaurants, and some of the best-dressed Europeans I've seen together in one place. On any given day you can look inside the windows of upscale boutiques and see chic men and women sipping champagne as they try on sweaters easily priced at 300 Euros and above. Every time I go to Maastricht I feel like I'm an extra on a film set. The city is so breathtakingly beautiful and its history is well-preserved. Where else can you find a bookstore housed in a 13th century Dominican church? Or a 13th century town gate and remnants of medieval walls? Lovely parks, interesting museums, an 18th century fortress, and, according to the people of Maastricht, the oldest bridge in the Netherlands, round out a long list of things that make Maastricht unique and irresistible.

Maastricht outdoes itself for 10 days every March. Colorful welcome banners sway in the breeze alongside roads leading to the city. The cafes on the Vrijthof Square are frequented by wealthy patrons with enormous baubles dripping from their perfectly-manicured fingers. Michelin-starred restaurants are booked and luxury hotels are filled. The tiny Maastricht-Aachen airport becomes studded with private jets. It's TEFAF time.

TEFAF is an acronym for The European Fine Art Foundation. The world's best art dealers (and buyers) converge on the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Center (MECC). Admittedly, we aren't art critics. I don't think I'll ever be able to glance at an ancient object and determine its century of creation or place of origin. Despite our ignorance we decided to shell out 90 Euros (two tickets) for admission to the exhibition just to see what it was like and to hopefully catch a glimpse of a prince or celebrity.

On the chilly Sunday morning, we approached the MECC behind fur-coated dames clutching Louis Vuitton bags. But don't worry about us; we were proud to be sporting our J.Crew ensembles. The walk ended at the VIP parking lot where chauffeur-driven luxury cars sat waiting for their owners to emerge from the art cocoon. A red carpet blanketed the path to the door and even us commoners were allowed to stroll upon it. There were no paparazzi, sadly.

The Catalogue.
After we purchased our tickets we were given the TEFAF catalogue. It's 651 pages dedicated to this year's TEFAF, featuring photos and descriptions of countless objects and lots of paragraphs about the importance of being an art collector. There is also a page dedicated to the Committee of Honour. The list includes people like The Ambassadors of Argentina, Monaco, and the Eastern Republic of Uruguay, and the Governor of Cologne and Mayor of Maastricht. I don't know any of them personally.

The vetting process for exhibitors at TEFAF is often considered the largest and strictest of any show. From the catalogue's foreword: "Some 250 of the world's best dealers are committed to bringing more than 30,000 top-quality works of art spanning 6,000 years of history to TEFAF. All the works of art at TEFAF are checked by committees of leading experts before the Fair opens to ensure their authenticity, quality, and condition. This year 176 experts, working on 29 committees, will be joining us."

Intricate floral arrangement in lobby.
The sheer volume of exhibits was astounding. Everything imaginable was on display including antique jewelry, furniture, paintings, photographs, Chinese fish bowls, rare books and manuscripts, rugs, sculptures, and even a sarcophagus. We saw Picassos, Rembrandts, Andy Warhol's sketches, and seldom-displayed drawings by Van Gogh.

The price tags on these items were staggering. As I was gazing at a blinding sparkle of diamond rings, a man beside me asked the cost of one. "One hundred thousand Euros, sir," was the curt reply from the jeweler. Hearing this, I stepped slowly away from the case, taking extreme care not to accidentally bump into anything or smudge the glass.

The people-watching was second-to-none. Most people were exceptionally-dressed but then there were also the few who didn't feel the need to "put on airs." I saw a man dressed exactly like my Dad, sporting a checkered Western-shirt, tattered blue jeans, and cowboy boots. There was also a gentleman completely covered in tattoos, including his face, with his ears stretched into a circle by enormous gauge earrings. I heard all sorts of languages; of course there was German and Dutch but also French, Spanish, Chinese, and some languages I couldn't even determine.

When people tired of strolling down endless lanes with intersections named after landmarks such as Trafalgar Square and Sunset Boulevard, they took a break at one of the cafes where they sipped champagne and dined on oysters and canapes. Everything about the scene was extravagant.

We spent almost three hours at TEFAF and there were still lots of things we didn't see. I can understand why the exhibition lasts for 10 days; it really would almost take that long to see it all. We were satisfied with our experience but a little disappointed that we didn't see any foreign royalty or anyone surrounded by security detail.

After some research we discovered that the Private View was actually held on Thursday, a day before the public opening. I suppose it does make more sense for the truly serious buyers to see everything without being encumbered by a bothersome public snapping photos and gawking. I think the real deals were made during the VIP day. For example, a painting from the 1630s was purchased for $6.5 million on Thursday. And we thought 12 Euros for parking was steep.

If we had been invited to the Private Viewing we would have been able to rub shoulders with some of the rich and famous: American billionaire Robert Lauder, Qatar's Sheikh Saud al Thani, and.... Kanye West? Apparently he sauntered through the MECC wearing a tres fashionable grey hoodie. I weep for the future.

With a last look at the grandiose charade, we took our leave of TEFAF. I think it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience for people like us but it was an exciting glimpse into a world beyond my imaginings, one filled with society parties, swanky jets and Bentleys, and, evidently, sarcophagi.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Heavenly Heidelberg

Well, it's snowing here AGAIN! I feel like this is the never-ending winter. Just a few days ago I was outside enjoying the sunshine and warmth and today it's frigid and sunless. If I've learned anything from living here it's that you can't let the weather change your plans or you'll be stuck inside the house for weeks. We woke up to a cold, rainy day on Saturday but we forged ahead with our plan to go to Heidelberg. Thank goodness we did because as the miles passed, the clouds broke and the temperatures warmed. The weather was beautiful in Heidelberg for the whole weekend!

The location we're in makes it easy to miss the rest of Germany because it's so convenient to just focus on Belgium and the Netherlands since they're so close. This year we've resolved to venture to the Bavarian part of Germany and really try to see the rest of the country outside of this triangle. Another good reason to stay in Deutschland is because I'm halfway through my German language course and I need the practice. I think German is a complicated language. I'm having a lot more trouble with it than I remember having while learning French but that could be because I was in college and accustomed to being a student. Maybe I'm just lazy now.

Anyway, back to Heidelberg. We didn't stay in the city center because hotel prices were exorbitant. Our hotel (Elite Hotel) was an easy 10-minute walk from the center and considerably cheaper. It was in a residential area and I generally prefer that because I think it's more charming to stay where people actually live. The only drawback was parking. The hotel gave us a permit for street parking but all of the spots were taken by residents. Cars were lined up on both sides of the hotel's one-way street. The cross streets were also einbahnstrasse and the only way to get to them was to go all the way out to the main road and then come back up, effectively resulting in missing any spots that might have become available on the original one-way street. Confusing? Yes, very.

We ended up driving around this neighborhood for 45 minutes. It was ridiculous. We kept passing a cafe on the corner and by the third or fourth time, people began looking up from their coffees and croissants, wondering why we were casing the joint. Every time we thought we saw an open spot we would race around the block and return only to find that it was handicap, not an actual parking space, or another car would be wedging itself in because it somehow mysteriously reached the spot before we were able to complete our circle. Some spots were available but it was impossible to squeeze our American-sized car in between the European-Playmobil models. We were finally able to park on a side street but not until I had spent several minutes making the European Vacation joke: "Look kids! There's Big Ben.... and there's Parliament. Again." Fortunately for me, my husband was amused.

I only tell this story to illustrate that even now, a year and a half later, we still sometimes have trouble accomplishing basic tasks. I think the difference is that a year ago we would've panicked and now we just accept certain things like getting lost and being late. It's a much more relaxing way to deal with unexpected issues. And at least now we know what einbahnstrasse means.

Our first order of business was lunch. It was a bit late due to our parking fiasco but we managed to find a nice restaurant serving up typical German fare and delicious hefeweizen. Perkeo Restaurant is named for Perkeo of Heidelberg, a famed court jester and guardian of the largest wooden wine barrel in the world. Legend says that he died at age eighty after drinking a glass of water instead of his usual wine.

My husband had shnitzel and I enjoyed a regional dish: stuffed dumplings with mozzarella au gratin. Delicious!

Heidelberg Castle ruins from the village.
Heidelberg Castle was our next stop. It looms above the streets of the village and it's hard not to keep looking up after every few steps to catch glimpses of the majestic bastion. The anticipation of reaching it starts to build as you get closer. There are two routes to choose from: a very steep, sloping hill and lots of stairs ambling along beside private residences and shrouded by trees. We chose the hill for our first ascent and it was certainly a challenge staying upright as we trudged to the top.

Steep climb to the top!
The castle was originally a medieval fort, first mentioned in 1225 in a document in which Duke Ludwig of Bavaria granted a fiefdom. Between 1400 and 1544 the fort transformed into a castle complex. Throughout the next several hundred years it went through additions, renovations, war, French occupations, lightning destruction, and, finally, restoration and preservation.

Crumbling wall!

The castle, as it was.
After a stroll through the gardens, we went back to the main courtyard to see the largest wooden wine barrel in the world. It holds over 58,000 gallons of wine. It was Perkeo's (the court jester) job to watch over the barrel and his name is said to come from the answer he always gave when asked if he wanted a drink: "Perche no?" -- "Why not?"
Yeah, it's pretty big.
We left the castle just as the sun was setting. We went to a lookout point from the castle and watched Heidelberg's red rooftops glow as the last rays of the sun lit upon them. It was magical and reminded me of the ever-changing scenery in Ireland's countryside.

Alte Brucke
We decided to race down the hill to the Alte Brucke (Old Bridge) to see the sunset over Neckar River. The bridge was crowded with couples young and old, children, and groups of friends all gazing at the view. Street musicians played lively songs and church bells tolled from the village. The experience was another of my visions of Germany before we moved here, and it was absolutely perfect.

We then stopped for a quick drink at Vetter. It's a traditional German pub with long wooden tables, bratwurst, and in-house-brewed wheat beer. Hops hang from the chandeliers and the crowd is a jovial mingling of university students, locals, and international tourists. I had a hefeweizen mixed with some sparkling wine and fresh strawberries. It sounds weird but it's extremely tasty and not as sweet as you'd imagine.

It was dark by now and we thought it would be nice to trek up to the castle one more time to see it at night. The underlying reason for our evening workout was because my husband decided to eat a huge nougat-filled ball of chocolate and he wanted to work off the calories. This time we took the stairs and all I have to say is that if you go to Heidelberg you have license to eat and drink whatever you want as long as you're planning on going to the castle and Philosopher's Walk. These little hikes put the Stairmaster to shame.

Once again, the walk was rewarding. A few others were taking advantage of the cool, pleasant temperature but it was still quiet on the castle grounds and the nighttime views of Heidelberg were lovely. We walked through the courtyard and our footfalls echoed off the stone walls. Everything was covered in shadow and the floodlights gave everything an eerie glow, making it easy to imagine what it was like when candlelight flickered from the arched windows.

It's unique to be able to see something like this at night, away from crowds and noise. In most cases you never have an opportunity to see attractions at night, much less for free! I definitely recommend a night visit to Heidelberg Castle should you ever find yourself there.

We woke early Sunday morning to tackle Philosopher's Walk. It's easy to find: just walk across the Old Bridge and you'll see a pathway marked by a small sign. The first glance is deceiving; it looks like an ordinary garden path. After a few steps the pathway veers and you find it's another steep climb to reach your destination. Things get much easier once you reach the top of the hill. Philosopher's Walk is so named because it's said that university professors and philosophers walked there for inspiration. I can certainly imagine that the lush landscape and quiet forest would provide a nice respite from the city and an opportunity to clear the mind.
Private Garden Entrance

Private, gated gardens dot the hillside. Some are overgrown while others are meticulously manicured. During our walk we saw someone tending their garden. Can you imagine?

"Honey, I'll be back in an hour. I'm going up to Philosopher's Walk to see how the thyme and basil are coming along."

Again, the views of Heidelberg are incredible and from here you can see the castle in all its glory.

We were sad to leave Heidelberg but we got out just in time. While we were walking back over the Old Bridge, the temperature dropped about ten degrees and it was soon blustery and cloudy. Despite the drastic change in weather, Heidelberg is a place that's enchanting whether it's seen under the red-tinge of sunset, in the darkness of night, or shrouded by ominous clouds.

Heidelberg, you have a piece of my heart.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Neighborly Love

I think it's pretty obvious by now how much I despise the never-ending German winter. Today has been (predictably) gloomy, rainy, and cold but not without its bright spot.

Our sidewalk is extremely long because we live on the corner. I know this is ridiculous but it typically takes me over an hour to shovel it. It's probably because I'm not accustomed to shoveling (ah, Florida) and also due to my need to make our sidewalk as pristine as the neighbors'. I don't sweep it during the warm months like a good German hausfrau so this is my penance.

Our neighbors on one side are elderly. They are usually sticklers for their sidewalk-shoveling duties but a couple times this winter I've had mine finished before they had a chance to get to theirs. By the time I reach their portion, it seems extremely tiny compared to what I've already done. If theirs hasn't been shoveled, I will usually do it for them and I consider it a boost to my calorie-burning and a good deed for my karma jar.

I think (hope) the snow might be finished this winter. Last week was the last time I had to shovel and I took care of their sidewalk twice.

Just now, my doorbell trilled and I looked out to see an elderly gentleman holding a bouquet of tulips. I didn't immediately recognize him but when I opened the door he smiled and said, "Hello, I am your neighbor. These are for you because you have shoveled our sidewalk and we thank you very much." I didn't even know they knew it was me.

I freely admit I almost teared up!

Sometimes it's hard living here, especially when you're trying to find a place within your tiny village, and acceptance among your German neighbors. I'm so grateful he came over because it made me feel like I'm part of a community. Now I don't need to feel shy anymore when I see him and his wife taking their daily strolls.

I think a bridge has been crossed-- a bridge lined with tulips.

Okay, Germany, I love you again.