A Travellerspoint blog

Belgium

A Nomination for the Museum Hall of Fame!

rain 10 °C

21 April 2014—Part II
Ieper/Ypres, Belgium

As I promised you this morning, today’s report has been divided into two parts: Antwerp and Flanders Field. Hopefully you’ve read Part I of this document—I wouldn’t want to be responsible for any spoilers. This afternoon, we again boarded the motorcoaches for the ~2 hour ride to the town of Ieper, Belgium. That’s the Dutch spelling, anyway. The French spelling is Ypres, which, if it’s okay with you, I will use since Ieper in a non-serifed font looks like LEPER, and that will never do. So it was off to Ypres. Ypres is the site of the vicious battles commemorated in the poem “In Flanders Field.” It is also the origin of the British custom of red poppies for war remembrance (you’ve likely seen pictures of William and Kate wearing them) because poppies were the first flowers to grow on Flanders Field after the tragedies there. (Unfortunately, the famous poppies don’t bloom until late summer.)

Our target was the In Flanders Field Museum, which endeavors to explain the battles (there were actually three) and the strategic importance of Ypres to both the Germans and the Allies (hence the three battles). It also delves into the horrors of the fighting in the Great War, including the first uses of chlorine and mustard gases as chemical weapons, as well as the absolutely primitive conditions under which the soldiers lived. We were to tour the museum, then have a private, after-hours dinner at the museum.

When we arrived in Ypres, we were a bit early for our after-hours visit, so we walked the few short blocks to the Menin Gate, which is the monument erected to memorialize all the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed. It is vast, and every vertical surface is covered with names of soldiers. At various spots, red poppies have been tucked into the walls by particular soldiers’ names, and wreaths of poppies are also laid along the walls and staircases (it’s that big). The sheer volume of life lost (according to one exhibit, Britain lost 10% of their army, over 1,000,000 soldiers) the Menin Gate represents is heart-wrenching. And those are just the Commonwealth soldiers. The Belgians, French, Germans, and Americans are remembered elsewhere. According to our guide, a bugler plays “The Last Post” every night at 8:00 pm. Fortunately for my tear ducts, I wasn’t around to hear that—we headed back to the Museum for our tour and dinner.

The town of Ypres itself is a marvel—it was completely razed during World War I but was rebuilt as an exact duplicate in only five years time. That includes an enormous cathedral and the Cloth Hall that now houses the museum. You would honestly never believe that those buildings had not been there since the 1500s, it’s that good. As with yesterday, most everything was closed, but there were a couple of shops open and I was able to snag some postcards for my stash. (And the museum had a gift shop. You know I love a good gift shop!)

Now to the museum…I am without words to adequately describe the emotional impact of the experience, but I will try to capture some of the technical aspects. You were given a wrist-band with an RFID chip inside when you went in, and you could swipe it at various stations and get remembrances/information about a soldier from your country and in your native language. (And the wrist-band is really cool—the RFID chip is hidden in a large red poppy—and they let us keep them!) Next, there was a giant topographic map of the area that was completely white. The various battles, campaigns, and troop movements were projected on it from overhead in color, and there was a museum staffer there explaining all the key dates and troop movements as a function of time. There was a really neat movie feature about the doctors and nurses who served at the front—I think it might have been taken from diaries of real people, but it featured actors doing reenactments. It was heart-breaking as they talked about the types of injuries they were treating, and even more so when you consider the state of trauma medicine at that time. That’s why there was usually a cemetery outside the field hospital. There was a great exhibit showing the evolution of uniforms throughout the war, and for the multiple armies, and a discussion of the introduction of chlorine and mustard gas as chemical weapons. It made the point that, while chemical weapons killed far fewer soldiers than conventional weapons, they were so effective because they instilled such fear among the troops. And I’d say that may still be the case today. Another case showed how the soldiers lived in the trenches—not well, in case you are wondering. Water, rodents, poor rations, and bad hygiene were common. I could go on and on, but I will say that, though the topic itself was incredibly heart-rending, the execution of the exhibits and the incorporation of technology into them was OUTSTANDING. That’s why I nominate them for the Museum Hall of Fame, which puts them in the same class as the Musee d’Orsay, my most favorite museum in Paris and possibly of all. This may not be something that’s in every guidebook, but if you find yourself in this part of the world, it’s a must-see!

Dinner was served in a reception space at the museum itself (sort of like when we went to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Mom). Lovely asparagus soup (I know—I was shocked, too), followed by vegetable curry for me (YUMMY!) and guinea hen with veggies for Julie, then chocolate mousse for dessert. All of it was delicious. But the best part was that the gift shop was right around the corner! Of course I couldn’t pass it by…more postcards, a lovely book about the “In Flanders Field” poem, and the museum guide, which I will gladly share with any interested parties, were procured. There were some lovely poppy statues made of enameled iron that I wanted, too, but they were just too big to fit in my suitcase!

After dinner, it was back on the motorcoaches for the ride back to the ship, which had sailed a little ways down the river while we were gone. As a result, we were double-docked with a Viking ship and had to trek through their lobby to get to ours! Is this the cruise equivalent of hot-bunking, or whatever it is the navy calls it when one sailor gets out of a bunk as the next comes off shift and crawls in??
Anyway, tomorrow we are headed for Middelburg, in the Zeeland province in the Netherlands where we will have (you guessed it) a walking tour in the morning, then a tour of the Delta Water Works (where they manage to hold back the ocean) in the afternoon. Should be an excellent engineering geek sort of stop! Stay tuned…

Posted by hidburch 15:01 Archived in Belgium Tagged ypres ieper menin_gate flanders_field Comments (0)

What do you call people from Antwerp? Twerps?

Inquiring minds want to know.

sunny 18 °C

21 April 2014
Antwerp, Belgium

Seriously, if anybody knows, please let me know. Even Wikipedia has nothing on this topic!

Today’s update is going to be in two parts, mostly because our day has been split in two parts. This morning we toured Antwerp, Belgium, then in an hour or so we’re headed out again for dinner and a tour of the museum at Flanders Field. Jeremy, the ever-efficient Tauck cruise director (although he seems like a Ben to me), has informed us that we will not be back from Monday-Part Deux until 10:30 or 11:00, at which point I will be disinclined to write a lengthy missive about the day’s adventures. So half a loaf is better than no loaf at all, yes?

We started our day docked at the quay in Antwerp, Belgium. Many of you may be somewhat familiar with Antwerp because the world’s largest diamond exchanges are here in Antwerp. (Sadly, these are closed today for Easter. Although, since many of the diamond merchants are Jewish, you’d think they might make an exception…) As Bea, our local Antwerp guide informed us, 80% of the world’s diamonds flow through the city of Antwerp, and 50% of the world’s cut diamonds return through here. Yes, per standard Tauck operating procedure, we started the day being “motorcoached” to the old city section of Antwerp for our walking tour. Now, I could craft a really interesting narrative that tries to join a bunch of disparate facts together, but it might be easier to just give you the bullet points that Julie and I remember from our tour with Bea (we have to rely on our collective memory because it is simply too hard to walk, take pictures, and write notes at the same time. Trust me. I’ve tried. Plus, you look EXTRA dorky doing that, rather than just the standard tourist dorky that comes from the camera glued to your face.)

Antwerp is located along the River Scheldt, which is a broad tidal river big enough to accommodate large (Carnival-sized) cruise ships and ocean-going freighters. The river has been straightened over time to make navigation by these behemoth ships easier. And being tidal means the level of the river rises with the ocean tides. As a result of climate change, the sea level has increased several meters, so the city is working on building a new flood wall system to protect the city from catastrophic flooding.

As a result of being on this large river, Antwerp is the second largest port in Europe (behind Rotterdam), and the 6th or 7th busiest in the world. It is also the second largest petrochemical port in the world, led only by the port of Houston.

There are several theories as to where Antwerp got its name, but the goriest one (and therefore the most exciting) is the one about the giant, Antigoon, who lived near the River Scheldt. He charged a toll for crossing the river, and for those who were unable or unwilling to pay, he cut off their right hand and threw it into the river. The name Antwerp is derived from the Dutch hand werpen, which means “hand to throw.” If you are interested in the other less-colorful stories, please consult Wikipedia. It’s free and instructive. And incidentally, the hand is now the symbol of Antwerp; in fact, we were presented with one of the city’s signature chocolates as a gift: a chocolate hand filled with marzipan and some “elixir” liquor made from herbs. (Quick Googling says maybe chartreuse? You know I am hopeless about booze. I do know that it is reputed to cure colic in horses and aid digestion in people, if that helps, and that it’s not gin…I would have remembered gin. As for aiding digestion, personally, I think I’ll stick with Pepto.)

The Cathedral of Our Lady in the old city of Antwerp is the largest cathedral in the Benelux countries and contains four paintings by Rubens: “The Descent from the Cross,” “The Elevation of the Cross,” “The Resurrection of Christ,” and “The Assumption.” Unlike most cathedrals of a similar age, the Cathedral has only one tower because the wealthy guilds donated lots of money to build the cathedral (which would have paid for a second tower), but each insisted on having their own altar (or perhaps it was chapel), so they had to use the money designated for the tower to enlarge the cathedral to build all those altars (or chapels). Incidentally, the gilded clock on the one tower is 7 meters in diameter (that’s about 23 feet for you non-metric-speaking people).

The City Hall…wait, I found it: Elixir D’Anvers…was built in the main square in the middle of all the guild halls, which blocked the lovely view that many of them had going on. They were probably pretty pissy about that! It is a lovely building, with the flags of all the countries that have consulates in Antwerp flying from the outside. There are several statues on the exterior, including one of Justice and one of Prudence. However, unlike in America, Justice here has her eyes wide open (due to the influence of trade), hence the need for prudence to temper justice. Only Ann, the lawyer, and I noticed that when asked!

Large portions of the Old City were destroyed by retreating German bombers during WWII, who were attempting to demolish the port. They missed.

We also got to see the Butcher’s Guild Hall, which is built from alternating layers of red brick and white stone called, appropriately enough, streaky bacon.

And lastly, you will see statues of the Virgin Mary on the corners of many of the houses in the Old City. Many of them contain light fixtures, because these were taxed at a lower rate than those that were just statues, the rationale being that since the Virgin was protecting the household, they were assured of getting into Heaven and the government had to get their money now!

From the Old City, it was a very short bus ride to the Red Star Line Museum. This museum depicts and honors the departure by millions of European immigrants from Europe for better lives in America and Canada. It is actually in the former shipping terminal of the Red Star Line, and is a VERY well-done museum. They have lots of video testimonials from actual persons who immigrated via the line, who talk about their struggles and reasons for wanting to emigrate. There are extensive exhibits about what the immigration process was like, including all the medical examinations and disinfection processes the potential emigres had to go through to prove they were capable of working in their new world, and to prevent the spread of lice and diseases like cholera and typhoid. Apparently, the immigrants in Antwerp were known because of their strong smell of disinfectant. There is also a good bit about what life aboard the ships (at one point, two a week were departing for America) was like. The very wealthy could afford first class accommodations, but many crossed in steerage, which was significantly less pleasant. Several famous immigrants are also discussed, including Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire, my boy Albert Einstein, and Golda Meir.

After the United States and Canada became more protectionist in the 1920s and clamped down on immigration, the Red Star Line fell into bankruptcy but was reborn as Holland American Cruise Lines! (And for everybody humming “My Heart Will Go On,” that was the WHITE Star Line, not the Red.)

So let me post this while the Internet is still (mostly) working. Expect a double dose tomorrow, with information about Flanders Field and wherever else we go (I honestly have no clue, as the itinerary for tomorrow has not yet been delivered….)

And somebody research what these Twerps are called!

Posted by hidburch 05:56 Archived in Belgium Tagged antwerp port immigration diamonds scheldt red_star_line_museum Comments (0)

Can you get fat on air?

Brussels, Belgium Friday, 18 April 2014

semi-overcast 15 °C

This is not a rhetorical question, because the entire city of Belgium smells like two things: chocolate and waffles covered in chocolate. If it is possible to gain weight by breathing, it will happen here. But more on that in a moment…

Thus far into the trip (Day 1!) it appears the travel gods are smiling upon us: neither Julie nor I had any air travel difficulties. I had planned on leaving for the Philadelphia airport about 9:00 am, but invoking Burch family standard time, I pulled out of the driveway at 8:45, which put me at the airport approximately four hours ahead of schedule (I have to believe God rewards good travel planning!), which gave me tons of time for one of my favorite airport activities: getting my shoes polished. I and my newly-shiny shoes arrived at JFK from Philadelphia around 2:30 pm yesterday afternoon (it takes two hours to go from Philadelphia to New York by rail—you can do the math on how short of a flight it is. We were up, we were down—there was no cruising altitude.) Anyway, I had tons of time to scope out where Julie’s flight from Columbus was coming in and where we had to go to catch our flight to Brussels, so when Julie’s flight landed, I collected her in short order and we caught the airport shuttle to the newly-renovated Terminal 4. Frankly, I did not find Terminal 4 to be all that and a bag of chips. Lots of high-end shopping, but it’s not like I’m going to invest in a Prada purse on my way out of the country! One interesting thing I did see, though, at both Philadelphia and JFK, were water fountains with special spigots to refill water bottles. Since yours truly had gone to the trouble of purchasing, labeling (with my label maker, of course), and schlepping a new water bottle, I was particularly gratified to see my foresight rewarded! No overpriced airport agua for me. (Told you I was cheap!)

We had a three-ish hour layover at JFK, which gave us time to have a leisurely dinner at Blue Smoke (a BBQ joint, in case you hadn’t guessed) and a scoop of frozen custard at The Shake Shack. (Go to Rita’s—it tastes exactly the same and is about half the price.) We did unhappily discover upon boarding the plane, a 2/3/2 Boeing 767, that we were not seated together. I was in seat 26E (an aisle), while Julie was in 27A. There is no POSSIBLE sequence of seat numbers that would put those two seats together, and since I had to sit beside a very wiggly stranger (you know my feelings about sitting beside people I do not know) for the 7-hour flight to Brussels, I was less than pleased. Delta did redeem themselves somewhat, however, with the quality of their on-demand video system—I finally got to see “Saving Mr. Banks” and watched “Love Actually” for about the 100th time. (I just love it when Hugh Grant offers to have Natalie’s ex-boyfriend murdered by the SAS…”trained killers are just a phone call away.”) And they even managed to get our luggage here with us, though Julie’s bag was about the second-to-last to come off the belt.

I love traveling with Tauck—there was a very tall man waving a very big sign, so we simply followed him to the bus, which deposited us at the very lovely hotel Hotel Amigo, near the Grand Place (or central square) of Brussels. Our room wasn’t ready yet, so we stashed our stuff with the bell captain and headed out to explore. That’s when discovered the lovely smell. I imagine it must be what Hershey, Pennsylvania smells like—delicious!

We headed to the Grand Place and found three things: waffle shops, lace shops, and chocolate shops. We hit ‘em all. HARD. Let’s face it: lace makes a terrific souvenir: it’s light and it’s flat. You can infer what you will from that about your trip “prizes,” as Carol Baker calls them! Seriously, there were four or five shops within spitting distance of the hotel (and you know I can’t spit very far!), and we scoured them. I got a lovely piece that is supposed to be a doily, but it’s going to be a very gorgeous new piece of framed wall art when the folks at Fast Frames in Peoples’ Plaza get done with it! They had everything: handmade lace tablecloths with matching napkins (sorry, I didn’t want to take a second mortgage out on the house to buy any of you one of those!); christening gowns, bonnets, and booties; hand-embroidered napkins (wanted a set of those BAD but I’d never let anybody use them, so what would be the point?); tissue box covers; hankies; bridal veils; lace blouses. If it will hold still long enough, somebody has put handmade lace on it!

Then there were the chocolate shops. Oh. My. God. You can’t swing a dead cat and not hit a gourmet chocolate shop (Neuhaus, Leonidas…Godiva is the cheap stuff over here.) And there are some shops where there are just giant bowls of truffles and you bag your own, like the old-timey Brachs candy displays we used to see in the grocery store. And it’s all so cute because the Easter stuff is out. We’re talking chocolate eggs with chocolate chicks INSIDE! Nary a Peep to be seen, that’s for sure. I had a lovely cup of true hot chocolate (“chocolat chaud” that was only slightly inferior to that at Angelina in Paris…it needed some whipped cream), and picked up a few small bars for emergency trip rations.

Coming in on the bus from the airport, we passed a museum flying a banner that touted “The Art of The Brick.” We asked the concierge here at the hotel, and he said that the building was the Bourse, which it turned out is not far from the hotel. We thought we’d go check it out—just the banner pictures were incredibly intricate and intriguing—but when we got there the line was absolutely INSANE and most of the members of said line were prepubescent, so we “Eiffel-towered it:” we took a picture and got the hell out of Dodge!

Instead, we decided to visit the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee, or “The Art of the Comic Strip” museum. The comic strip was essentially invented in Belgium, and they have quite an extensive (and cerebral) museum dedicated to it in a gorgeous Art Nouveau building. There was lots of exhibit space devoted to Tin-tin, a beloved Belgian cartoon character, but we came to see one thing: The Smurfs! That’s right, the creator of the beloved Smurfs was Belgian, and there was some exhibit (and gift shop!) space dedicated to the little blue guys. Sadly, most of the Smurf story books were in either French or German, two of the main languages in this area. (It looks and feels very much like Paris here, but just like in Paris, as soon as you start speaking English, natives switch instantly and seamlessly to English with you.)

We swung by the hotel to actually get into our rooms and “facilitate” (that’s Sara-speak for hitting the head), then we headed back out to the lace, chocolate, and waffle shops. That’s where I suffered my first-ever travel shopping fatality: I bought some postcards and two magnets at a little tourist shop while Julie was getting a waffle. I showed them to her, then we made several more acquisition stops (Wittamer chocolate, for example!). When I started logging receipts and merchandise in my trip notebook (how else can you fill out your customs declaration completely if you don’t keep a log??), they were GONE. I was disconsolate, but the little shop was right around the corner, so we went out and I was able to replace the cards and one of the magnets, then found a second magnet that I like better than the one I lost. And I don’t think the 15 euro is going to make me or break me…

From there, it was on to the tour welcoming reception and dinner. I am used to being relatively youthful on Tauck trips, but we look like jailbait compared to most in this group! Wonder if there’s an AED on the bus…oh wait, I haven’t been officially trained. Better not <snark>! Anyway, the reception was nice—they had Coke in the tiny little glass bottles if you didn’t want beer, wine, or champagne—and dinner was tasty, if long. A scallop starter for me, with caprese salad for Julie, followed by sea bass (me) and scallops (Julie). We ate with a group of the oldsters that included an MIT Course 15 grad (who will celebrate his 65th college reunion next year…again, you can do the math) whom I recognized by his Brass Rat. (One always notices a person wearing a beaver on his finger!), a retired librarian, and a retired teacher going back to get her PhD in gifted/talented education. A good time was had by all…for over three hours. Ugh. (The bathtub here in our room does make up for it, though—I was able to stretch out FULL LENGTH and UP TO MY NECK!)

Tomorrow we are headed out on a guided walking tour of Brussels, following by lunch at a chateau, a visit to the American cemetery in Margraten, then a bus ride to where our ship is docked in Maastricht.

Anchors away!

Posted by hidburch 13:47 Archived in Belgium Tagged chocolate belgium brussels lace Comments (0)

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