Friday, September 4, 2015

Bruges Canal Cities I

Biking in Belgium from Bruges to Damme means canals, windmills and bridges. 

Rich and I have rambled homeless since mid-May with adventures in southern and northern Spain and a month in Italy. We read that Spain places second only to Switzerland in having the most mountains in Europe. We explored this and traveled over, under, around or took pictures of many of those Spanish mountains. The overs, arounds and pictures almost always involved any combination of fog, rain, hail, sharp turns, falling rocks, narrow lanes and cows or bicycles in the road. And we loved it all (some after the event, if not during). Some day, I will post those photos and stories.

Today, we are in Garmisch, Germany. Trying to recapture all our unrecorded rambles to this point will take months, so I decided to restart Rambling Solo beginning in early August when we departed Spain for Belgium. I had planned mussels in Brussels for years, but opted instead for Bruges, one of the most beautiful towns I have seen.

Bruges Highlights

Canals, bridges, locks and windmills became our landmarks in Bruges. Canals wend through Bruges similar to Venice, but Bruges sparkles with vitality and health and lacks the sinking-into-the-sea feel of Venice, the decay and decadence imparted by Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. Bruges is clean and orderly, and the canals are bordered by houses topped by stairstep peaks. Travel is by bicycle, foot, motorbike, car or boat, in that order. Four windmills, only one working, line the main canal. The bridges on the main canal are raised for boat traffic and lowered for bikes, pedestrians, motorcycles and cars. The bridges also form part of the lock system. Astride our bikes, we watched a barge fill the length and width of the canal between two bridges, and we waited while the influx of water raised the barge to the next level to continue its trip. Then we continued ours.
Bruges has canals and swimmers
crowd the pier on a sunny day.

Church of Our Lady, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, is under repair with scaffolding outside and barriers inside. The interior is sad with cracks in walls and ceiling, chunks from columns, discolored marble floors, water damage on walls and columns. The art alone attracts visitors. Tucked into a niche of an altarpiece with other sculptures, Michelangelo's "Madonna and Child" exemplifies the and sublime nature of his work. Religious paintings depict biblical scenes with Flemish facial features, clothing, background details contrasting to the Spanish biblical features so familiar from our months in Spain.
Michelangelo's "Madonna and Child"

The Church of Our Lady and the clock tower glow
on the edge of the view from our room.

Next door to the church, the Groeninge Museum provides a lesson in Flemish art from medieval religious painting to contemporary artists. Signage for each age explains how art changed in emphasis from one period to another, how artists were influenced by earlier painters and by events in the world around them. Slowly over this past year, I have become enamoured with portraits, where I see cultural shifts, dress, history, art technique and personalities. This museum was my first introduction to the Flemish Primitives, a group of artists including Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Hugo van der Goes and Gerard David, who began to experiment with oil paint that better created the glint of metal, the softness of fur, the tactile delineation of silks, satins or brocades. Although I could not find an official site for links to the art, you can find examples of these artists online.

Fun Discoveries

We rode rental bikes from Bruges to Damme (maybe seven kilometers). Following the canal path, we saw occasional Eurasian coots, water lilies blooming, Queen Anne's lace growing alongside. Green fields stretched on either side with cattle or corn. After lunch in Damme, we returned on another route winding along country roads past brick houses with matching brick barns. We braked for one large fenced yard to watch red chickens pecking about, white rabbits chasing each other and sitting guard in center court, a kangaroo, while other roos slept along the fenceline.  
Kangaroo sitting guard

Bruges offered other surprises; at a crowded jazz and wine bar, the combo played American rhythm and blues, including Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons." From the hills of Appalachia to the low country of Belgium, the music transcends language differences.

Heading for Amsterdam, we returned to Brussels by train. Our planned layover allowed time to load all the bags in a taxi and drive to the narrow side street to see a simple fountain, the Manneken Pis. A tiny replica of the bronze boy was a treasured relic of my childhood, an item then for childish giggles. Although my mother was never in Belgium, I think she carried the tiny bronze home after her war years in London and Paris. A gift? The story behind it seems lost to me. The replica floats still somewhere among family mementos. I could forgo mussels in Brussels, but I could not be in Belgium without paying homage to the Manneken Pis. 
Manneken Pis,designed by
Hiëronymus Duquesnoy the Elder and
placed in Brussels in 1618


Bicycles trump cars in Bruges. Outdoor cafes stay
busy even on cool evenings.

 Clean, orderly, houses lined beside
the canals or on cobbled streets,
the town feels like a fairy tale.


Houses wear stairstep peaks.

Marilyn Monroe and other replicas keep watch over
tourists waiting for canal tours. 
Enlarge with a click 
to see the Bruges sense of humor.

Enlarge to see the dragon drain, any
opportunity for art and fun.

Notice the designs on the fence surrounding
this windmill in Bruges.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Hasta Luego, Madrid

A visit to roses in the Botanical Garden in Madrid 
Seven months was once a ghastly long time. And now, a skip and a jump and it passes. This is our last week in Madrid. Not the end of our year-long life out of the country, but now, we will be nomads, moving with as little baggage as possible, with no home, not knowing where to sit with morning coffee, where to buy a newspaper to read with said coffee, limited to dumb phones, no dependable Internet, no easy access to English books. Are we ready to leave Madrid? No, we would gladly stay the rest of the year, happily ensconced in Maria Carmen's apartment and just travel from here. However, MC returns next week for her six months in Spain and so we are off to explore Europa.

These last weeks, we have tried to continue our return to favorite spots as well as discover more of Spain. We went to see "Clementine" at Teatro de Zarzuela in Madrid. Zarzuela is Spanish light opera, entertaining, easy to follow plot of lovers thwarted first by parents and second by plot twist, subtitles in English and Spanish, polished voices and lively music. 

Red bricks and white stone create the Mezquita
arches in Cordoba.

Mezquita in Cordoba

Detail in the Mezquita
We traveled to Cordoba to meet long-time friends Donna and Dave at the end of a tour and grabbed another opportunity to visit the Mezquita. Built on ruins of a sixth century Visigothic church, the Mezquita is a 10th century mosque with a 16th century cathedral built inside. I find walking among the red and white arches of the Mezquita hauntingly beautiful; it and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona are my two favorite buildings in Spain and beyond -- breathtaking, peaceful, offering solace and awe.
Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Gardens of Spain

Rich, Donna and Dave
on Cordoba patio tour
With Donna and Dave, Rich and I visited the private patios of Cordoba, an event much like the Mother's Day House Tour on Capitol Hill when residents open their houses or, in Cordoba, their small enclosed patios to the public. The tiny spaces overflow with flowers hanging high on the walls in pots, spilling from balconies, tucked against the walls. Most also have a center fountain or an old well filled by rain channeled from neighboring roofs into the patios. The patio tour invites all to see these interior courtyards and glimpse the inside of houses through windows or open doors.
Flower filled patio in Cordoba

Donna and Dave returned with us to Madrid and the three of us continued the flower theme with a walk and lots of photos at the Botanical Gardens. The gardens span several acres in the heart of the city. As in much of Spain, the gardens are formal beds outlined by boxwoods and blooming with roses, rhododendron, iris, peonies on another gorgeous blue sky day in Madrid.
Rhododendron blooming in the Botanical Garden 
Peony bud with lady bug
Botanical Garden 

Travel lessons

Two questions haunt these last days: What have I learned? What will I take home with me that will influence my future? I'd love to dash these off higgledy piggledy, but no. 

I have learned that I feel at home being in a house that's personal even if the personality is not mine; I love MC's books in Spanish and English; I love the family pictures in the hallway; the pottery from different places in Spain; the DVDs for children or adults in Spanish or English; hanging wet laundry on the roof, especially now, but even during the winter; I love, love the washing machine that sings sweetly and cheerfully to us when the load is finished; the sketches of Segovia and Salamanca and Moxente blending with West Virginia scenes; the sunlight that pours in; the furniture pieces that have known time and family.

I love this simple Spanish barrio stocked with mayores - the old and the very old - and young families with children and dogs. We love the little cafes that spring up beside playgrounds where parents sip and chat and kids dart from swings to table. At minimum, each block has two restaurants and three bars, but try as we might, we have missed more than we made. Rich has loved cooking our main meal, served between 2 and 4 p.m. He loves the mercados, the sausage guy, the fish guy, Ali's vegetables, Jose's jamon and cheese, the German-style bread two blocks further than other bakeries, cafe solo and Spanish conversation at tiny Chispa in the mornings. He watches Real Madrid and Atletico and Barcelona futbol at Casa Vicente within spitting distance if you lean out the kitchen window.


And so we're off to roam: Malaga, Gibraltar and the white towns; Italy for June; Pamplona and northern Spain in July; Germany, Amsterdam, Belgium, Denmark; Greece in late September; Washington in mid-October. Stay tuned for erratic reports from the road. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Spring in Spain

Bridging the mountain top and driving into the Valle de Jerte, I thought morning frost grayed trees and slopes, but as we descended, we began to see the white cherry blossoms covering yards and fields and
extending for miles beside the winding road and scaling the rolling hills.
Spring in Madrid blooms from the early almendra (almond) trees to forsythia to the cherry trees spilling down the sides of the Valle de Jerte west of the city. I have been to Spain several times in the summer - sultry July before or after La Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona - and a couple of times in either November or March. I am enchanted by this spring with cool mornings and nights, bright sunshine afternoons, cool-in-the-shade days. And to watch the rebirth after seeing only the dusty, dying green of fall dwindle to winter is a reward of seasons.

All photos can be enlarged by clicking in the center.

Almendra blooms first in spring
Forsythia at the Prado
Rich and I celebrated the season with a venture into old Madrid to watch the Semana Santa procession from San Isidro el Real, the church holding the remains of the patron saint of Madrid, Isidore the laborer and his wife Santa Maria. Seville in southern Spain is best known for the processions during Holy Week, but all communities have processions when the relics and icons from the churches are paraded through the streets on the shoulders of young men honored to carry the burden. 
Crowd waits for the procession
The crowd at San Isidro waited hours to view the procession and included young children entertained by the opportunity to play in the blocked streets to chicos drawn to the fiesta atmosphere to older adults who know the best viewpoints.

Lights in street indicate
icon in procession

Dolorosa in procession
The quality of my photos of the procession suffers from distance and growing dusk and tripod lack, but I hope they help you imaging the ritual draw and excitement of the religious event. 

Then weeks later, in Cordoba to meet friends from the U.S., Rich and I heard the drumbeat cadence of a procession and edged into front row standing to watch the passing.

Procession in Cordoba

Leading the procession

Note feet of carriers beneath skirt

Musicians following procession

Earlier in the spring, we ventured to the mountains west of Madrid for a four-day drive to spend nights in Paradors, to hike in the Sierra de Gredos, to substitute cherry trees in the Valle de Jerte for those we would miss in Washington, and to visit the walled medieval pueblo of Caceres.
Wisteria blooms in Caceres

Jonquils in Sierra de Gredos
Medieval Caceres
Sierra de Gredos

Hiking in the
Sierra de Gredos

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Corners and Critters in Spain

Curt, Cindy and Rich walking the wall in Ávila
Si, I am still here in Madrid at least for a rato (short time in espanol). In truth, our days here have been full of movement and language and living. Consider this posting as a "yes, we're still loving Madrid and Spain and thinking of you" postcard. Since March, we've enjoyed visits from my sister Cindy and her friend Curt; from long-time friends Ron and Kim from Salt Lake City and Trout Canyon; and from my sister Terri. 

I have been immersed, head down, in Spanish classes, 4 hours a day/five days a week. I now have many, many verb conjugations floating about in my head, totally muddled. The difficult feat is to have them flow from muddy mind to smooth oral discourse unimpeded by my constant need to edit. Having finally decided my mind is on shutdown for any new information, I've left the daily classes, but Rich and I now attend a private class for an hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays, just to practice talking. For Rich, those of you who also love him, know he willingly practices talking given any lull. 

Now for the postcard, photos from our travels with Curt and Cindy and alone over the last couple of months. Cindy emails photos with quips highlighting her travels every week and always includes wildlife from hikers to snakes. This posting is dedicated to her, and my condolences to all who aren't on her list. Watch for more soon.

Enlarge any photos with a single or double click in the center.
Cindy and Rich wander
through Madrid.

Museo Sorolla in Madrid was home to Joaquin Sorolla, Spain's 
finest impressionist (1863-1923). It's my absolute favorite 
of the small museums. Much of his art features his wife and
 three children, and the garden is a lovely haven in the city.

Cindy in Retiro Parque

Curt and Cindy see Palacio Real (or vice versa)
El Templo de Debod in Madrid, an ancient temple
given by Egypt to Spain in 1968 in gratitude for
help in rescuing monuments threatened by an
overflowing Nile; a romantic vantage point at
sunset although Cindy, Curt, Rich and I watched

only the dwindling.

Templo de Debod in the dwindling

Train station in Cercedilla, a small 
town north of Madrid in the Sierra
Guadarrama and one of three trips
outside Madrid with Cindy and Curt.
Roman bridge (maybe)
in Cercedilla

Cercedilla lizard

Segovia stork for all the bird people

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Madrid Through Younger Eyes

Quinn takes on Cristiano Ronaldo at Bernabéu Stadium

For me, Madrid is an adult city offering art, history, remnants of an ancient past, classical guitar, flamenco, its own look and style. I worried about its appeal to my younger grandchildren when they arrived with parents in February: my son Joe, wife Shannon and the grandchildren, Campbell, Quinn, Parker and Tanner ranging in age from 17 to 10. I had so looked forward to introducing them to the city and to Spain in general. 

Having studied the habits of fellow travelers and benefiting from the experience of any and all, I try to learn a bit about the places I visit: history, architecture, art, archaeology or nature; to experience the place through sound, sight, smell, taste, touch; and to seek experiences that make the place memorable. I followed that guide to develop an itinerary for Joe and family, knowing we would substitute, rearrange, delete whether for mood, whim or weather. 
Puerta de Alcalá: Quinn,
Tanner, Campbell, Parker

Prosperidad, Prado 

We began with a sleep-deprived walk through our barrio, La Prosperidad, then lunch of tortilla, the Spanish potato and egg dish similar to frittata that we get from a neighborhood source Rich discovered. The next day, we ambled through old Madrid sites, Plaza Mayor the center of the old town and  to Puerto del Sol, which marks the center of Spain and center of the city. 

We toured the Prado with grandchildren each holding a list of recommended paintings to find. I tried an introductory short lesson on what to look for in the paintings: Does the painting look like a photo? What does it tell you about history? Does it show how people dressed? Does it show royalty or regular people working or playing? Is it a landscape with or without people? What recognizable traits might help you identify the artists? I used a guidebook from the Prado for illustration, and encouraged the kids to stop to look at anything that attracted their attention. The Prado is immense, and we have learned to limit our sessions to two hours and schedule a meeting place. When I met Quinn roaming through alone, he had just found Rubens' “The Three Graces” and others both on the list and in addition to it. Together we located Velázquez, “Las Meninas,” and looked at details that make the piece great. Then Quinn elected to go off alone in search of more art to mark off his list. 

Palacio Real

El Palacio Real, built by Felipe V (1683-1746) with 2,800 rooms,
functions for formal ceremonies. Giambattista Tiepolo's frescos
decorate the ceilings, at times spilling down over the crown molding.

El Palacio Real detail

We toured the Palacio Real, luxurious and elaborate amid elbow to elbow crowds. We waited in line for chocolate and churros at San Gines and stood at the counter to drip chocolate-coated churros from cup to mouth. We ambled through Retiro Parque where the kids seemed more interested in the food stands than in the puppeteers and musicians and magic shows and rowboats on the lake. We spent an evening of flamenco at Las Carboneras. 


Toledo's Moorish details
We traveled to Toledo on the bus. Toledo soars beautiful on its high mount, more stunning with distance than within. Busy with shoppers, it resembles old Barcelona  more than the smaller medieval villages. The Alcazar rises majestically on the wall edge, part of the town’s fortifications. 

The cathedral sits tucked into narrow streets, the top impressive from a distance, but less so closer because the structure crowded within narrow streets has no viewing place, no way to see it whole and massive. Inside, thick, multi-ribbed columns create a  forest reminiscent of the Mezquita in Cordoba.

Toledo's Cathedral built on the site of a mosque

Cloisters in the Cathedral 

 I followed the Rick Steves guide from high altar to lovely window cut through the ceiling to channel the morning sun. I treaded through the impressive gallery to see art by El Greco, Goya, Caravaggio, Velazquez and more. The cloister outside is in mid-stage of refurbishing frescos, soft and colorful under the arches.

Bernabéu, Biking and Rope Play

Joe’s family shared three obviously favorite activities in Madrid: shopping, Bernabéu Stadium and biking along the Rio Manzanares. They shopped in Corte Ingles and throughout that central shopping area; they spent a late afternoon and evening shopping in Chueca’s boutiques, and they shopped in Toledo. The prices in Madrid and the extended post-Navidad sales are definite attractions. 
Campbell, Shannon, Joe and Parker take a break
at the top of El Corte Ingles

They also enjoyed touring Bernabéu Stadium, playing ground of Real Madrid fútbol (soccer). The stadium museum is high tech with video embedded light tables where photos can be moved and changed at whim. With the tap of a finger you can watch videos of past games. Screens project life-size players with stats and bios. In addition, the self-guided tour includes visits to the turf and team box, team dressing room, VIP seats, and lots of photo opportunities. I would highly recommend this tour to soccer fans of all ages.
Real Madrid bench: Parker, Campbell,
Quinn, Tanner, Joe

Quinn at Bernabéu

Campbell and Quinn at Bernabéu

Tanner and Parker at Bernabéu
The family also enjoyed biking along the Rio Manzanares all the way to Atlético Stadium in south Madrid. All four kids elected to ride karts, four-wheel, low slung bikes that take their toll on thighs. Joe, Shannon and I selected 6-gear regular bikes with baskets. We made multiple stops for the rope play areas: high ropes to walk across with assistance, low ropes to test balance, robes to climb and ropes to swing across. It’s a marvelous playground with appeal from 10 to 50 and beyond if you don’t fear falling.

Campbell on the ropes



Tanner in the sky box
As usual, we exposed them to an array of Spanish cuisine, from paella to jamon and Manchego cheese to chuletón (steak thinly sliced) cooked at table at our neighborhood Casa Vicente, to bocadillos (Spanish ham or ham and cheese on baguettes). Food always gets attention. A busy week for all.