Thursday, May 07, 2015

Sumer is icumen in: Spring in Brussels

Last weekend, the 25th of April, we went to visit a forest just outside Brussels which is either very famous or completely obscure, depending on who you ask. It's called the Hallerbos/Bois de Halle, and is particularly known for the beautiful bluebells that bloom for a few weeks in spring. The flowering season is probably almost over - if you're interested in visiting this year or next, you can visit the forest's very informative website, which gives daily updates on whether the bluebells are (still) blooming. It explains that they will only bloom as long as sunlight can still reach them through the forest canopy, so once the beach trees have all their leaves, they will die off. I'm not sure why so many grow in this particular forest, I suppose it's just one of the lovely things nature does.

We spent about an hour walking around in the forest, and it felt like about half that amount of time. It really was enchanting, and I'm not sure the photos do it justice. I hadn't been expecting, in particular, the dense drifts of red leaves that were also covering the forest floor - they made for a lovely contrast with the rivers and pools of bluebells lying under the trees. We went there on a drizzly Saturday, which turned out to be a good choice, as the forest protected us from the rain but there weren't very many other people there. There's a carpark right there and it's all easily walkable for the average person.

We're having a nature overdose this spring, as this weekend we decided to visit the Royal Greenhouses at Laeken, on the 1st of May. The greenhouses are only open for a few weeks a year, as they are actually "royal" in the sense of being in the grounds of the royal palace. Cue much dark muttering from me as we went round about the unearned wealth and privilege of this family who live off taxpayers' money and ill-gotten Congo gains and then expect us all to doff our caps at them when they have the grace to let the great unwashed into their private domain once a year. My parents will be laughing at that, since I used to be quite the fan of the royals when I was a little girl, but as it says in the Bible, "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child..."

Anyway, I had heard from colleagues and the internet that it can get horrifically crowded in there and to expect long lines, so we decided to go for the evening session, when hopefully it would be a bit quieter, and turned up half an hour before it opened - by which time a pretty long line had already formed. Luckily the evening wasn't too cold or rainy, and it actually turned out to be not as much of a nightmare as I had feared. It was good that we got there while it was still light, as it was worth it in order to see and photograph the grounds before going into the greenhouses. Once you're in, you do have to process around the exact same route (and at pretty much the same speed) as everyone else, so I can imagine it getting quite unpleasant on a hot and crowded day. Everyone seemed pretty content to take their time (and plenty of photos) though, so I never really felt like I was trapped behind a slow moving crowd, which is something I really hate.

Looking back at the rest of the queue after we got in

Jules joked that this boar was saying "paint me like one of your French girls"
In front of the palace (you're not allowed any closer)

An empty greenhouse

Selfie in front of the Japanese garden

This crown-topped greenhouse with its towers reminded me of a mosque or the Hagia Sophia

If you're ever in Brussels in spring, it's worth a look, not least for the fact that it's the only time of year you can visit - but be prepared to queue! The queue to get in evaporated fairly quickly I think, but as I said, it's worth making it in while it's still light, so weigh up whether you really want to go when it's quiet or whether you want to see it in daylight etc.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

A very Luxembourgish Easter

Much of the time, I hardly feel like I have an Exotic Boyfriend™ at all. He understands and speaks English so well that there's no scope for those cutsey mistakes and understandings you often hear about (barring the occasional habit of saying "bowel" when he means "bowl"). But one good thing about having an Exotic Boyfriend™ is learning about traditions in another culture. Or teaching him about your traditions. Or, in this case, telling him about traditions in a third country and he doesn't believe you.

When we had our first Easter together last year, we had only been dating for just over a month, and he decided to torture me by inviting me to Easter lunch with his entire family - cousins, aunt, uncle, grandma, brother, mum, the works. He claims this was being nice, as otherwise I would have spent Easter alone in my dank apartment, probably scrubbing a fresh pee stain off the couch (probably true), but it was all kinds of horrifying for someone as socially awkward as myself. Anyway, the point of this is way back then, I told him that in France, Easter Eggs are brought by church bells, not the Easter Bunny, and he didn't believe me. I'm not sure why, as on one of our first dates I was famously proven right on the fact that there are about a million feral camels in Australia (or, rather, there used to be - apparently they've gotten quite killy on the feral camel front in recent years (and the refugee front, badoom tissh), but that wasn't the part of the fact that was in dispute, so victory was still mine). So anyway, I was probably trying to pretend to be a good girlfriend and repress the part of me that likes to be proven right at all costs, and the matter was apparently dropped. Until this year, when I brought it up again, and he still wouldn't believe me until we watched a really frustratingly slow YouTube video on the subject.

He brought it up at this year's Easter dinner, and his Grandma informed us of the rest of the story from the Luxembourgish point of view, which is that the church bells do indeed fly away to Rome to confess their sins (really, how much can you get up to as a bell?) and, furthermore, while they're gone, kids go around the villages making a racket with wooden rattles and so forth and sing a little song, to make up for the missing noise of the church bells.  They then have the effrontery to demand money for the task of annoying everyone for the past few days. Which makes me extra happy that we were in Germany, not Luxembourg, in the days leading up to Easter.

Another Easter tradition in Luxembourg is the Easter Monday fair of Eemaichen, held in Luxembourg city and in Nospelt. We headed along to Nospelt to check out this very popular event - there was even a free bus, as so many people descend upon this tiny town for the occasion. The fair revolves entirely around clay whistles shaped as birds, called Péckvillchen. You wouldn't think that would be enough to pull in the punters year after year, but I suppose tradition's tradition. And the bird whistles were cute, plus we watched a demonstration of how they're made.

Demonstrating how a péckvillchen is made

I wonder what happens to the giant bird the rest of the year?

A plethora of péckvillchen

And of course, I had to select a lucky péckvillchen to come home with me to Brussels. I can't get it to whistle though! (In case you're wondering, you blow in its bum...)
One last tradition is to dye hard-boiled eggs (as in many places), and then you each take one and tap them against each other's, the loser being the one whose egg cracks. The punishment is having to eat the egg. Kind of like conkers, if you had to eat the conker afterwards. We got given some eggs from a bunny at the fair, so we played, and I lost, but declined to eat an egg that had been festering in a bunny's pouch.

Any interesting Easter traditions in your part of the world?

Monday, April 27, 2015

Please sir, can I have some Meersburg?

So many photos, you guys! On the last day of our trip, Easter Sunday, we got up and out bright and early in order to spend the morning in Meersburg before driving back to Luxembourg for a family dinner at Jules's mum's.

The internet waxes lyrical about the charms of Meersburg - its steep streets presenting a higgedly-piggedly vista of quaint old houses rising up from the tranquil lake front, capped by a 12th-century castle. Reading all this, we had originally wanted to stay there, but it was too late to find anything reasonable at Easter by the time we booked, so we went with Uberlingen. Uberlingen was perfectly nice, especially for walking along the lake front in the sunshine, but it's true that Meersburg is very charming.

As I touched on in a previous post, it's funny that somewhere with such lovely old houses AND a gorgeous lake doesn't get more press. I enjoyed Colmar, but now have a sneaking suspicion that, had Alsace stayed in Germany, it wouldn't be nearly the famous tourist attraction it is now. Well, I suppose if that had happened, it would have meant the Nazis won, so probably a good enough reason to eschew a visit right there.

After Saturday's constant drizzle, it was good to have some sunshine again to enjoy the beautiful views. It got a bit cloudier as time wore on, but that made for some nice photos at least!

The castle interior was quite good. Not absolutely packed with artefacts and explanatory information (although there was some of each), but interesting enough. We visited the tower as well, which can only be done as part of a guided tour. That was not super fascinating for me, since I had to stand there while (a seemingly very enthusiastic) guide went over everything in German, but there are some great views from the top, so worth your time.

You all saw how excited I was about signs that say "fahrt", so imagine my delight at finding a Bum Bum icecream
I want to stay in a hotel with a bear-bedecked turret

View from Meersburg castle

Me and a hoof stein

Jules in the armoury. The ones with the cloth over their faces are creepy. I think they're probably alive

View from the castle tower

See, how pretty is that?

A ferry coming in for a handbrake turn

Explanatory gif for the above photo caption. I laughed at this for a good 10 minutes, that is one badass mofo ferry service right there

On the lake front

It's a shame it's a bit hard to see the cool statue on the right - reminded me of those on the Charles Bridge in Prague

In the castle grounds

Meersburg town square

Street selfie. Lucky I just got new sunglasses, seems those ones got pretty chipped when I wasn't looking!

Looking up at the castle

Church and vineyard overlooking the lake
So there we go, I didn't have much of interest to say about it, clearly, but ten thousand pictures must be worth ten million words, so hopefully I've shown a little of how pretty it is there, for those of you (like me) who were unfamiliar with the region. There's so many beautiful and interesting places out there, I just wish I had the time and money to visit them all!

PS This time the pun was bad. So bad, it's good? BUT, it actually has a direct link to my trip as Jules and I were playing a "guess the movie/book/show I'm describing in Luxembourgish" game, and he didn't know "please sir, can I have some more"?!?* It didn't help that I don't know words like gruel, workhouse, or orphan, but come on now.

*"Wann ech glift, Herr, kann ech méi hunn?" probably not how you say this, but is my best attempt, in case you ever find yourself playing a round of  "guess the movie/book/show I'm describing in Luxembourgish" in the future.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Monky business

As I said, it was originally forecast to rain during the entire Easter break, so we were actually relieved that it only rained on the Thursday and Saturday. Nothing like low expectations to make everybody happy. The Lake Constance area is pretty much built for outdoorsy activities, or at least that was what we had been looking forward to, so we had to come up with a Plan B. The original plan was to take a ferry trip to the "flower island" of Mainau, but since the weather really wasn't co-operating (and, also, it's really expensive, so you're even more keen to have a nice day for it), I suggested a drive to a different island - the "monastic island" of Reichenau.

There was much debate in the car over whether it was really an island or just a peninsula reached by a narrow isthmus, but you'll be happy to know that we did cross over about a foot of water to get there, so it has been declared officially an island by the Sandiego-Luxembourg household.

Not just any island, it is a World Heritage site thanks to its monastic history. A Benedictine monastery was founded here in 724, and you can visit its three main churches, built between the 9th and 11th centuries. In all honesty, I don't think two of the churches would be drawing visitors from far and wide - they're worth a look if you've already made it on to the island, but they're mostly riding the coattails of St George's. Modest and unassuming from the outside, its interior is decorated with early medieval wall paintings depicting Christ's miracles. In the summer, you can only visit at set times (I think once or twice a day) on a guided tour, as the number of visitors risks damaging the paintings, but luckily enough we were there just before the season started and we got to see the church all by ourselves.

Driving on to the island in dreary weather

Outside St. George's

Panorama of the interior of St. George's

Looking from the altar along the right-hand wall to the back of the church

This is what it looks like without the distortions of the panorama (which I think are kind of cool, for the record)

I think this is the raising of Lazarus - the 3D scroll pattern at the bottom is pretty cool too

Mummy Lazarus

This illustrates a misogynistic saying that women talk so much nonsense it wouldn't fit on an ox hide. When Jules read this, he informed me that the saying still exists in German, although they've dropped the reference to chatty women, so he didn't know where it came from
The wall paintings are not the brightest and most vibrant you'll ever see, of course, but their history and completeness is pretty awesome. It's a cool feeling to stand in the middle of this tiny church and have them surrounding you - much nicer than they look in the photos.

One good thing about Reichenau is that each church had its accompanying little visitors' centre, which explain what you will see inside the church as well as the history of the monastery and its activities. Two of these were free, while the main one charged a small fee. I was mostly interested in the main museum because it claimed to display medieval manuscripts from the monastery, but be warned, they turned out to be just facsimiles. Still, there was a lot of interesting information across the three sites, especially laying out the monastery's connections with the rest of Christiandom, including its role as a major artistic centre, sending those manuscripts all over Europe.

Tomb in the church of St Mary and Mark

Facsimile of one of the monastery's manuscripts, showing a remarkably passive piece of dragon-slaying

If you end up in the area on a rainy day, there are definitely worse things you could do with your time than a trip to Reichenau, although how much you get out of it will largely depend on how much you want to read about medieval times!