Better headers

This is either going to be the lamest post ever, or a little fun. You’ll be the judge, of course.

When I first started using this blog template called “Twenty-Ten”, I didn’t like the skinniness of the header. But I liked the idea of putting a photo at the top of the home page and even better — changing the header to go with the subject of the current post.

“Twenty-Ten’s” aspect ratio is 940 x 198 — not exactly common dimensions for photos. It took me a long time to get used to finding photos that could be cropped that way and look decent. But over the year that I’ve been doing the blog, I’ve not only come to accept it, but actually have begun to like images that display well in the long, skinny format. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where I look for it when I shoot — not all the time, of course — but I’m always trying to be aware of a shot that lends itself to this kind of frame.

On my recent trip to Europe, (HA! — you thought I was done with that, didn’t you!) I shot many photos with “blog header” in mind. Some of them worked out OK, and many didn’t. Here are a bunch, in no particular order and with no descriptions, from The Netherlands and Belgium — just for shits and giggles, lame post or not.

The Easter Beagle strikes!

I hadn’t really paid much attention to Easter for a long time, until last year, when a cute basket from Lars and Evelyn Ramgren showed up on my doorstep. It had potatoes and and onion in it (which I gobbled up immediately) and it was very colorful and nice. I was glad to see that the tradition now included good, healthy food, because all we ever got when I was a kid was candy.

But today a very mysterious thing happened. I got a text message on my phone saying that the “Easter Beagle” had struck. Wow. I had no idea what that meant. I thought and thought about it, but couldn’t figure it out. So I cranked up my computing machine and goggled it up on one of the internets. Apparently there was a documentary film called “It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown” made a while back. I hadn’t seen the film, so I asked Peet (Emily and Kyle’s dog) who is an expert on canine flix. He said, “WOOF!” and went straight to the front window. He knew what was going on.

Peet eyes the Easter Beagle booty.

Imagine my delight at finding a basket full of not only root vegetables (which this year included radishes and a carrot in addition to the traditional potato and onion), but a Santa Claus Pez dispenser, some Halloween SourBats AND Valentine conversation hearts!

Last year, the Ramgren kids were very nice to me. They apparently took a year off this year, but a very thoughtful and generous beagle picked up the Easter torch and brightened the day of a lonely old man and his (daughter’s) dog.

Wait a minute . . . . I wonder if the basket is really for Peet? hmmmm . . . .

Too early to tiptoe through tulips – but still a great bike ride

(This is the last of a series of 5 posts about my spring break trip to Belgium and the Netherlands. To start with the first post in the series, go here)

When we first started planning this trip, at the top of the must-do list was “biking though the tulip fields”. But when we started figuring out when the dates of my break were, we realized that late March would probably be a little early for tulips. We were right, but it wasn’t early by too much. Even though we weren’t able to see the fields in full bloom, we did get an early glimpse of color.

We intentionally saved Amsterdam for the end of the trip to give the flowers an extra week – and we saved the bike ride until the last full day before coming home. It was a cool, sunny day, and it would have still been great even if there hadn’t been ANY flowers. There’s an amazing system of bike paths and dedicated lanes all over the flower-growing area to the southwest of Amsterdam and it was a joy just to be out riding around the countryside.

Looks like Holland! The train enters Haarlem. (photo by Steve Date)

We took the train from the Amsterdam Central Station to Haarlem, which is only about 10 miles away. It’s a short walk into the city center from the train station. Haarlem is a beautiful small city and is a great place for a quick break from Amsterdam. But we were mostly using it as a jumping-off point for a bike ride, so we just walked around a bit and then headed out. It was a quiet Sunday morning – nothing open until later in the day.

Quiet Sunday morning in Haarlem. (photo by Steve Date)

Renting bikes at the Haarlem train station was easy and cheap – €6.50 for the whole day, and they’re open until midnight! One slight drawback was that they only had single-speed backpedal-brake models. Not a big deal for us, but it might be for you.

Armed with nothing more than a comically undetailed map in a guidebook, we headed out of town in a generally southerly direction, hoping to find one of the two roads shown on the map. The “plan” was to see some flower fields in bloom and make it down to a place called the Keukenhof, which is basically a big flower park near the city of Lisse. Since everything in the Netherlands seems easy to do (compared to most other European countries) we weren’t too worried about find our way. We had all day and were up for heading out into the unknown nederland.

Not long after we got out of town, we starting seeing fields of daffodils and other early-bloomers.

Just south of Haarlem (photo by Steve Date)

Much to my delight, the Dutch have made it simple for morons without a map to bike all over the place without getting lost. The system of trails and bike lanes in this area is truly amazing. There are numbered signs with maps on them that seem to be spaced exactly as far apart as you need them to be. The road and path surfaces are smooth, lanes wide and traffic light (at least on a Sunday). Some of the bike baths go through wooded areas, past cattle and sheep farms, small towns, residential areas, as well as the bulb fields. Here are a few pictures to illustrate the types of things you’ll see as you wander around.

We stopped at the Keukenhof, looked around at the gift shop for a minute and decided not to go in. At a hefty €12 or €13, we decided to do on the next trip. It had only been open for the season for a few days, so it wouldn’t be in full bloom, plus we were enjoying the scenery so much, we just wanted to keep biking.

A mile or so from the Keukenhof is Lisse, a quiet, pleasant town where we decided to find a place to each lunch. We stopped at an unassuming little Italian restaurant called Ristorante Piccolo that was just opening up for the day. They had a couple of tables outside. A French-speaking group of four took one and we took the other. The very friendly owners (possibly husband and wife) apologized because the oven was not hot enough for pizza yet. They brought us some bread and tasty spreads, and because we had to wait, followed a few minutes later by some bruschetta and another apology.

This place doesn't look like anything special from the outside, but it really was. (photo by Steve Date)

Sitting in the 60-degree sun, having some good food — pretty nice. By the way, the pizza was great, too. Just one of those places you stumble on that make you glad you took this trip.

Keep apologizing! - the pizzas can wait.

Stomachs full, it was back on the road. We decided to go a few kilometers farther south, to a town called Sassenheim, just north of Leiden, before heading back toward Haarlem. Here are a few more photos from that part of the ride.

I’m not sure if it comes through in the photos, but it was great — beautiful day, beautiful scenery, beautiful people (the people we met, not us).

Time for a quick jaunt over to the ocean before we return the bikes in Haarlem? Sure, let’s give it a shot.

The path takes us past some dunes and a nice looking golf course called the Kennemer Golf and Country Club.

Soon we were at the sea shore, a place called Zandwoort. It seemed kind of strange to suddenly be at a beach resort area. I’ll bet it’s pretty nice in the summer.

We were getting tired and had a few miles to get back to Haarlem, so we didn’t stay long at the beach. There are some great residential neighborhoods between Haarlem and the ocean. Seems like the ideal place to live if you have money and want to live outside, but near Amsterdam.

Just ouside Haarlem. No reason for the photo other than I really like the building. Reminds me of a radio we had when I was a kid.

The sun was going down when we got back to our place. I really didn’t want to go home the next day. That’s the sign of a successful vacation, I guess.

For many more photos from the trip, go to my Flickr collection from the whole trip here.

To see the 5 spring break posts in order, go to the first one on April 3 here.

(All photos by Steve Date)

Home again in Amsterdam. The last rays of sun hit our room just above the Cotton Club in the center of the picture.

P.S. One more photo — as we were flying out the next morning, we went over some of the area we had biked. You can see the beach town of Zandwoort, the golf course in the upper left, and some of the grass-covered dunes between Haarlem and the ocean.

“That’s different.” – A Minnesotan visits Amsterdam

(This is the 4th in a series of 5 posts about my spring break trip to Belgium and the Netherlands)

A case could be made for Amsterdam representing either the best of civilization or the worst. For me, it’s unique city of contrasts, irony, and possibly the best people-watching I’ve ever seen.

After 3 days in European dreamland (see previous post) and a leisurely 3+ hour ride through some beautiful farm country, the first steps out of the Amsterdam Central Train Station are a shock to the senses.

The first thing you notice (and probably my most lasting image) is bikes, bikes, everywhere.

The central train station is in the background. Watch out before you step into the bike lane. (photo by Steve Date)

This is Biketown. Sure there is some car traffic, but you barely notice it as you walk through the city. Bicycles dominate the scene to an extent that I hadn’t imagined.

They are constantly whizzing past you in every direction. Toddlers to old fogies, business people, hipsters, families, tourists, locals, are all on bikes, and nobody — N-O-B-O-D-Y — wears a helmet.

Apparently wearing a bike helmet is one of the few things that's against the law in Amsterdam. (photo by Steve Date)

Kids often double- and triple-up on parents' bikes. (photo by Steve Date)

After our usual getting-lost-a-bit walk from the train station we found the Nieuwmarkt square, which is where the B&B we’d booked was located. When the nondescript door to the place was locked, there was a moment of mild concern — but only a moment. “Hello, Steve and Sandy?”, asked the young man who had just trotted across the square. “I’m Daniel. I didn’t know when you were coming, so this is good timing”.

Daniel is the owner of the “Inn Old Amsterdam” bed and breakfast. We’d booked it after a lot of searching on the internet. For some reason that nobody seemed to understand, many hotels were fully booked for the dates we’d be there. The photos of this place on the website looked nice and it got some good reviews — and they HAD a room available for the 4 nights we needed — so we took it.

Daniel led us up a steep, narrow staircase to our room. He looked to be in his mid to late 20s. Like everyone of his generation Amsterdam, he spoke English better than most Americans do. Daniel was friendly, helpful and informative. Like the city itself, the room was beautiful, but had an edge to it.

Our room at the Inn Old Amsterdam (photo by Steve Date)

The edge was that it was located over a bar on a busy square. I loved the view and the noise of the bar below didn’t keep me awake, but Mrs. D had some trouble sleeping because of the voices from below. I liked standing in the window, watching and photographing the scene below.

Nieuwmarkt from our window (photo by Steve Date)

Our room provided a great vantage point for visual eavesdropping on the sidewalk seating of the bar below (photo by Steve Date)

Amsterdam fans out from the area near the train station. It takes its structure from a series of roughly concentric canals. The layout seems logical and systematic on a map, but in reality it’s tricky to find places because few streets go straight for very long. The “spoke” or “radius” streets are pretty direct, but of course they get farther apart from each other the farther from the center you go.

The streets follow concentric rings of canals.

Because it’s so flat, Amsterdam is very walkable. But as I said, bicycles dominate the traffic. Residents and tourists alike fill the bike lanes with wheels. You don’t see a lot of expensive racing-type bikes. What most people ride is either single-speed or beat-up geared bikes, often painted bright colors and adorned with plastic flowers.





But for the time being, we’re walking. So let’s head out and see some of the famous, infamous, and otherwise interesting sights of this capital of all that’s good and bad about civilization.

Might as well dive right in and hit the Red Light District. It’s just a few blocks from our B&B. We didn’t spend a lot of time in the “RLD”, but we did walk around a bit, and I have to say it seemed pretty tame to me. Most people walking around are couples or groups of either young men or young women. I saw fewer drunk or high people than you would on an average U.S. college campus on any given weekend. The vast majority are just there for the same thing I was — to gawk at the whole scene. Apparently the RLD is actually one of the safest parts of the city, because of the many cops and bouncer-types around.

You're not supposed to take pictures of "the girls". I guess it's in bad taste or something.

There seemed to be very few actual customers. The window ladies were expressionless, for the most part — almost mechanical. Maybe it was the weird, red lighting, I don’t know, but they seemed like like ordinary-looking women with mannequin-skin, wearing lots of make-up and dressed in bikinis. It’s clear that it’s nothing more than a hum-drum job for them. We walked by one window where one of the prostitutes was sitting on a stool eating a Subway sandwich — working through her dinner break, I guess.

Variety is the spice of life. For an eerie experience, see the potato exhibit photo in my previous post about Bruges (photo by Steve Date)

In one of the brothels, a young man was trying to enter as another guy was leaving. The lady of the window was arguing with him, trying to close the door and asking him to not come in. She kept saying “no blacks”. After a couple of minutes he gave up. Wow, a racist prostitute. I lost all respect for her.

If I were walking through this area with children, I think the store window displays would be much harder to explain than women standing around in swimsuits. Here’s one shop that seemed to have a wider variety of the same basic product for sale than all the others.

Yes, you can also buy pot there.
Yes, you smell it from time to time as you’re walking around.
No, it’s not a big deal and no, you don’t notice a lot of people acting stoned.

OK, so now that we’re higher than a kite and have had our fill of prostitutes and marital aids, let’s switch gears a bit. How about some antique hunting to calm down that libido?

We found some great antique stores, markets and an antique shopping mall.

One of the rooms in a great antique mall (photo by Steve Date)

We got interested in Delft tiles. One shop had thousands for sale. They were salvaged from old houses — very old houses. We bought a couple of tiles, one from 1650 and the other from 1675. They have great pictures painted on them and they travel well in a suitcase — good souvenirs. If I was rich, I’d do a whole wall in my house with them.

Delft tiles date back to the early 1600s. (photo by Steve Date)

Amsterdam has some great museums.

We went to the Rijksmuseum, which has a lot of Rembrandt paintings, a few by Vermeer (including the iconic milk maid) and the other Dutch masters. It’s housed in a beautiful, old building. But I have to say I was a little surprised that the museum only uses a small portion of the building, and is actually not a huge collection. Still worth seeing, though.

The Van Gogh Museum is great. They have the biggest collection of his paintings in the world and while there are works by some of his contemporaries and influences, the focus is on Vincent. There was also a temporary exhibit about Picasso while we were there. This museum is a must-see.

"Crows in Wheatfield" poster outside the Van Gogh Museum. These tourists are in a lot better mood than Vincent was when he painted it. (photo by Steve Date)

The Anne Frank House is another must-see on any tourist’s itinerary, but one I chose to not-see. I walked by it a couple of times but the line was discouragingly long and people were talking about a several-hour wait. I didn’t buy tickets online ahead of time like I should have and didn’t want to wait around that long. You have to save some things for the next trip, right?

Amsterdam must have been quite a place during the late 60’s and early 70’s, where it was the epicenter of the counter-culture in Europe. There are a few remnants of the old hippie days, but the city has moved on. Let’s face it, young people today might smoke a little pot or tie some flowers to the basket of their brightly painted bike, but those who remember the real deal are getting on in age.

But a few old people (my age) are still around from the heyday. We met some (and some a little younger) at a little bar called the Cafe de Gaeper.

Cafe de Gaeper was our version of "Cheers" (photo by Steve Date)

What pubs are to Great Britain, “Brown Cafes” are to Amsterdam. The names derives from the dark-colored wood often used in interiors, stained even darker by years of smoking. We stumbled into one of these our first night and liked it so much we ate there again a couple of days later. The food is burgers, sandwiches, and fries. The atmosphere is a friendly, VERY casual mix of mostly locals and a few tourists. It’s a European version of the “Cheers” TV show.

Cafe de Gaeper was our little glimpse into local life in Amsterdam. On our first visit, there was a dog sitting on a bar stool, looking ready to order. The half-dozen people at the bar, as well as the bar-tender and the people at another table all knew each other and it was obvious they came there all the time. I ordered fish and chips. They were delicious, and at €8.50 a relative steal. While we were eating, two young ladies came in and began talking to a man sitting at the bar. They knew each other, too. One of the women said to the guy, “Hey, I’m wearing the underwear you gave me on my birthday a year ago, remember?” With that, she turned her back to him, dropped her jeans to her knees and reminded him in a memorable way. It was all very innocent, friendly, not-drunk, and funny. Then she sat down for a beer. The dog curled up on the stool next to her.

I love that place.

This is the kind of place I want in my neighborhood - dogs on barstools. (photo by Steve Date)

The city of Amsterdam was fascinating, but the crowds and frenetic pace of the street get to you a little after a couple of days. The most enjoyable thing we did during our 4-night stay there was on the last full day of our trip, when we took the train to Haarlem and rented bikes for the day. My last post in this series will be about our day of biking through the flower bulb fields and to the sea coast. Look for it in a few days.

As usual, I have posted enough photos about Amsterdam on Flickr to bore anyone to sleep. But if you’d like to see more pictures, go to my Amsterdam Flickr set here.

Here are a few more random shots. See you soon in Haarlem!

Some of the old buildings seem to be on the verge of falling over (photo by Steve Date)

Mom's birthday, maybe? (photo by Steve Date)

Typical Amsterdamer of a certain age. (photo by Steve Date)

Colin Farrell and I disagree about Bruges

(This is the third in a series of posts about my spring break trip to Belgium and the Netherlands)

In the movie, “In Bruges”, Colin Farrell plays Ray, a rookie hit-man from Dublin. His boss (played by Ralph Fiennes) instructs him to lie low for a couple weeks in Bruges, Belgium after he botches his first job. Ray has never even heard of Bruges, and when he gets there, he’s not impressed, to say the least. Ray’s hit-man supervisor/mentor, Ken, (Brendan Gleeson) tries to get him to relax and enjoy the sights of this beautiful city. But Ray will have none of it. “Maybe that’s what hell is, the entire rest of eternity spent in f***ing Bruges”, he says at one point.

Sorry, Ray. I (and pretty much everyone who’s ever been there) beg to differ. King of the film critics Roger Ebert liked the movie, but also loved the city itself. “If the movie accomplished nothing else, it inspired in me an urgent desire to visit Bruges”, he wrote.

But Bruges is more than just a backdrop in the film. It’s used in such a way that it almost becomes one of the characters — the canals, the buildings, the art, the little bridges . . . and the light. The iconic bell tower in the central square is the setting for a pivotal event. They all become part of the plot. It’s not just a movie set in a beautiful old city. It’s a movie in THIS old city, and it keeps reminding us of that. As Ebert wrote, the movie “shows us a breathtakingly beautiful city, without ever seeming to be a travelogue.”

We arrived at the Bruges/Brugge (French/Flemish language issue again, but unlike Brussels, people here speak Flemish) train station shortly before noon on a bright, sunny Monday. The station is just outside the edge of the old walled city and a leisurely 25 minute walk from the center. My first look at the Markt, or central square literally gave me a chill, it was so beautiful. It looks like a . . . well, a movie set.

The central Markt (photo by Steve Date)

But the fact is, the whole town is just the way it should be. It’s the way I want Europe to be. Bruges is what Europe looks like in my dreams.

One of the many stone bridges (photo by Steve Date)

We’re now at the point where you, a seasoned and jaded traveler, might say, “But what about all the tourists? Isn’t it overrun with crass, obnoxious, souvenir hounds?

The answer is, “I don’t care”. Ever been to Venice? The whole city is tourists. Even the people who live there are mostly employed in a tourism-related way. But I don’t care, because the place is so damn unique and stunningly beautiful. The fact is, tourism brings money. In old cities, money brings preservation and tends to keep out the riff-raff. (I actually enjoy a little riff-raff now and then, which you’ll hear about in my next post about Amsterdam).

But not here. Please keep Bruges the way it is. Maybe it seems like an artificial Disneyfied version of a European city to you, but it isn’t. This place is real. Real people live here. They graciously share their city with us and use the money we spend to keep it up, almost as a living museum of history.

A woman bikes home from work (Photo by Steve Date)

We got even luckier with our hotel here than we did in Brussels. For about the same price (€75 a night) we had a wonderful, large room at the Hotel Bourgoensch Hof. It had a big bay window over looking a beautiful intersection — breakfast included. The other side of the hotel has canal views — take your pick.

The view from the courtyard outside our hotel, the Bourgoensch Hof (photo by Steve Date)

Morning view from our bay window. (photo by Steve Date)

This is the hotel breakfast room. Not a bad way to start the day. (photo by Steve Date)

The old city centers in Europe are an interesting mix of old and new. Don’t be fooled by the ancient exteriors. Many of these very old buildings contain modern technology and cutting edge fashion and design in a way we don’t see as much in the U.S. And although Bruges has picture postcard views at every turn, the residents are modern, young, hip families. I love watching the people who live in these places going about their lives. Sometimes the tourists get in the way, but if you dig just a little deeper and stray a little from the usual tourist sites, the visitors either blend in or disappear.

For me, what really makes this city seem alive is the young people — always riding bikes, always smiling, as if they continually feel the same exhilaration about their city as I do.

Some of the guide books say that Bruges is expensive. It’s not, if you’re careful. Some say it’s not worth more than a day or two. Not true again. We were there for 3 nights and didn’t feel close to being maxed out. Personally, I could stay there for a very long time.

Other than “just” walking around, we also took one of those hokey boat rides around the canals that turned out to be not hokey at all. Our boat guide did the tour in 3 languages and was very informative.

You get a different perspective from canal-level. (photo by Steve Date)

We also did the tour of the Halve Maan brewery, which was entertaining as well as educational. It’s a family business and the only remaining active brewery in Bruges. Our guide was an animated, comedic guy who made the whole thing very fun. This small brewery makes a couple of the 780 brands of beer sold in Belgium.

Our Halve Maan brewery tour guide cracking jokes on the rooftop deck of the brewery. The view is stunning from up there. (photo by Steve Date)

One afternoon we rented bikes for four hours. After riding around town for an hour or so, we decided to take a trek outside the city. We didn’t have a map, but knew that the seaport called Zeebrugge was something like 15 kilometers away, so we tried to make a run for it. It was a beautiful ride, but we made a couple of wrong turns that ate up some time. We didn’t make it quite to the ocean before we had to turn around to make sure we got the bikes back in time, but we came pretty close. It was great getting out into the countryside. I’d highly recommend a bike ride like this if you have time.

Biking a few miles north of Bruges on the way to Zeebrugge, the seaport.

Exhibit of different types of potatoes at the Frietmuseum bears an odd resemblance to a window display in the Red Light District of Amsterdam that you'll see in my next post.

We also went to the Friet (Frites) Museum. It’s a nice little place housed in a former church and a great idea for a museum. You probably know that pommes frites, what we call “French Fries”, actually originated in Belgium. The story goes that American soldiers in WWI met Belgian soldiers who showed them this newfangled way of cooking potatoes and they brought the idea back to the states. Because the Belgian soldiers were speaking French, the Americans misnamed the frites as French Fries.

At the Frietmuseum you’ll learn more than you ever thought there was to learn about potatoes and how to fry them — not to mention how healthy fried potatoes are to eat! If you’ve ever wondered what the perfect french fry tastes like, this is the place to find out. You’ll get a coupon for 50 cents off a more-than-supersize bag of frites in the basement cafeteria. Two people can make a meal of one serving for about 2 bucks.

I haven’t told you about the beautiful Stadhuis (Town Hall) museum, the Bell Tower, the chocolate shops, the Basilica of the Holy Blood, the Wednesday market, the windmills or a bunch of other stuff yet. You’ll have to do some things yourself, I guess.

There was one thing I thought I’d see and thankfully never did — a t-shirt, coffee mug, bottle opener or any other souvenir that said “F***king Bruges” on it. Colin Farrell says it so many times in the movie that it becomes etched in your brain as part of the name.

Colin, (or to be fair, “Ray”) if you read this, I have to respectfully take issue with your assessment of this place. I can’t think of too many places I’d rather spend a couple of quiet weeks.

So reluctantly, we left Bruges and it was on to Amsterdam. Look for part 4 of this series of posts in a few days.

(For many more of my photos than you’ll ever want to see, visit my Flickr set about Bruges here.)

p.s. Here are a couple more snapshots. I couldn’t resist.

Brussels — waffles, chocolate, frites, beer, cartoons, architecture and a ubiquitous urinating boy

(This is the second in a series of posts about my spring break trip to Belgium and the Netherlands)

Are you worried about a possible federal government shutdown? Did you know that Belgium currently has NO government? They haven’t had one since last June, and on March 29, they broke the 289-day record previously held by Iraq. Go Belgium!

What’s most bizarre about that is that Belgians don’t seem too shook up about it. Life goes on. Things get done.

Brussels, Belgium’s capital, is also the de facto capital of the European Union. Go figure.

Bruxelles is a mostly French-speaking city in the middle of the Flemish (Dutch)-speaking Flanders portion of Belgium. Go figure some more and let me know when you get it figured out.

And by the way, Belgium is where “French Fries” originated — but you knew that one already.

Now this is what I call Europe! (all photos by Steve Date)

Brussels (or Brussel or Bruxelles, depending on your language preference) is not usually considered an “A-list” destination for tourists. People from outside Europe might dream of going to Paris, Rome, London or maybe Venice, Prague, Barcelona . . . but Brussels? Hmmm . . . maybe on the way to somewhere else.

But it’s a beautiful, complex city that grows on you. Kind of like the quiet sister of the homecoming queen, it can be just as interesting as its more popular, outgoing sibling (and maybe even more appealing in many ways) — if you just make a bit of an effort to get acquainted.

We arrived by train in a sleep-deprived state from Amsterdam (see previous post) at about noon on Saturday, March 19. For some reason, the street layout confused me (not a particularly difficult thing to do) and we walked around for a while before finding our hotel, which was less than a mile from the central train station.

View down to the little courtyard from our 3rd-floor room. Not sure what was legendary about the place, but it was very nice and a good value.

We stayed at a “Hotel La Legende”. Now might be a good time to disclose our European hotel priorities – old (hopefully with some character), clean, priced around $100 (€75-80), and fairly centrally located. If any kind of buffet-style breakfast is included it’s a big bonus. Also we’ve (mostly the Mrs.) added shower-and-toilette-in-room (“en suite” as opposed to shared) as a high priority in recent years. La Legende got high marks on all of these categories and we felt it was a great deal at a rate of €75 a night, tax included.

We’ve chosen to book hotels ahead of time on these trips, for several reasons. With the internet, you can (usually) get a fairly good idea of what you’re going to get, especially if you’re willing to spend some time on travel advice sites such as TripAdvisor. I’m all for spontaneity, but on a brief trip to a country where you don’t speak the language, it’s much easier having a reservation than spending time schlepping your bags from door to door asking about availability and prices.

On this trip, we also pre-paid for our hotels for two reasons — first, you get a slight discount and second, you can use a credit card, which is not quite as welcomed in some parts of Europe as in the U.S. (see future Amsterdam post). When you do use one in Europe, you usually pay more than you would for using cash. So it was cheaper and one less thing to worry about.

So what did we do during our 44 hours in Brussels?

I don’t profess to be any kind of expert on this, or any city I visit for the first time. But I would like to share some of my experiences with you.

Time for another priority disclosure — walk, walk, walk. Most of what I’m interested in seeing in European cities is outdoors, on the streets and sidewalks. Ordinary people doing what they ordinarily do. The resulting experience is a combination of stuff you’re “supposed” to see with things you notice along the way. That’s where the fun is.

Crossing the street can unexpectedly become a moment of joy. (photo by Steve Date)

Here’s a rundown of some of the things we did that Brussels is known for. If you’re interested in more photos of things I noticed along the way, go to my Flickr set about Brussels.

1) Belgian Waffles
They’re fresh, they’re covered with more stuff than you can imagine, and they’re everywhere.

2) Chocolate
Easter season in the world’s chocolate capital? Use your imagination.

3) Pommes frites
Ate quite a few spuds. Much more about this in the next post about Bruges.

4) Beer
OK, I was going to hold off on little pisser-boy until the end, but it’s a beer picture, too — a “twofer”. Much more about beer in the next post as well.

5) Cartoons
I didn’t realize that Brussels is also the cartoon and comic strip capital until I started reading the guidebooks. The Smurfs came from there, as well as Tintin, the young Belgian reporter who, with his dog Milou, has adventures all over the world as well as in space. The Belgian Comic Strip Center is a unique museum that’s worth a visit.

Tintin follows Captain Haddock down a fire escape in this mural (blue vertical wall in the center). There are 30 of these comic strip murals spread around Brussels. (photo by Steve Date)

6) Architecture
Brussels survived WWII with most of its old buildings intact. The Grote Markt, or “Grand Place” is an amazing central square, surrounding by beautifully ornate buildings, including the “guild houses”, tracing their ancestry back to the medieval guilds. This public space is a UNESCO World Heritage site and considered one of the most beautiful squares in Europe.

The Grote Markt (photo by Steve Date)

Brussels also makes a claim as the capital of Art Nouveau (enough with the capitals, right?) There are many beautiful examples by Victor Horta as well as others. A walk through the Square Ambiorix area reveals some stunning houses.

The slender Saint-Cyr House on Square Ambiorix was designed by Gustave Strauven, a student of Victor Horta. (photo by Steve Date)

7) And finally . . . . the impertinent, naked young lad who shows up EVERYWHERE.

Here's the little guy high on his perch showing how he feels about the tourists snapping pictures.

From Wikipedia: “Manneken Pis (help·info) (literally Little Man Pee in Marols, a Dutch dialect spoken in Brussels, also known in French as le Petit Julien), is a famous Brussels landmark. It is a small bronze fountain sculpture depicting a naked little boy urinating into the fountain’s basin. It was designed by Jerome Duquesnoy and put in place in 1618 or 1619.”

There are a half-dozen theories about the historic scene he’s commemorating — a couple of them have to do with urinating on opposing armies. I like those the best.

I hate to aid in promoting something like this as THE symbol of a city as beautiful as Brussels is, but the reality is that they do it themselves — no other single image is as widespread in store windows, knock-off statues and tourism brochures as this thing. So here are a few of the endless variations on this bladder-emptying theme. You have to admit, they do have fun with it.

Here he is helping to sell candy.

I find this utilitarian version kind of frightening

Waffles here! Get 'em while they're . . . hang on a second . . . aaaaahhh, that's better.

Who could have imagined in 1619 that it would come to this?

Well, I’ve gone on far too long and didn’t even talk about restaurants, museums, parks, neighborhoods or a bunch of other stuff that people are interested in. I’m not a very good travel writer, I guess.

I’ll try to do better in my next installment. Back on the train after two nights in the capital of everything.

Soon we’ll be “In Bruges”. (Rent the movie if you haven’t seen it. It’s pretty good)

To see more of my photos from Brussels, go here.

Spring break in Europe: 1st of a series

As a teacher, I get quite a few weeks off every year (not as many as you might think, but that’s another discussion). Travel abroad during the summer months and around Christmas is expensive and crowded. So Mrs. D and I have often used my week off in the spring to travel, usually adding a Friday or Monday to make a 10-day trip.

We’ve taken 7 spring break trips to Europe (plus a winter break trip to Spain) beginning with a visit to France with the kids in 1999. People tell me they wouldn’t go for that short amount of time, but it’s actually quite nice if you take it for what it is and don’t plan to do too much. I’ve learned through experience that it can be unnecessarily stressful and tiring if you have an unrealistic itinerary.

We hadn’t gone on any vacation for 3 years. Airfares had been high, the exchange rate not great, and home repairs and improvements were eating up funds. But it was time to go somewhere again. We decided that if a decent airfare popped up, we’d grab it. $900 – $1,000 was too much, and that’s where they hovered for a few weeks. Finally, when a $645 fare from MSP to Amsterdam appeared, we grabbed it.

So we decided on 3 cities we hadn’t been to — Amsterdam, Bruges and Brussels. (Mrs D had been to Amsterdam many years ago)

After arriving at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport at about 8:30 AM on Saturday, we hopped on a train at the convenient airport station and headed for Brussels.

From the train between Amsterdam and Brussels

The first day after an overnight flight is a tired, bleary-eyed affair, so rather than stumble around Amsterdam waiting for our hotel room to be available, we decided to watch the countryside go by for 2 and a half more hours, then start the week in Belgium and work our way back to Amsterdam.

We rode past early-blooming bulb fields.

I’ve rented cars in Europe several times, but the train has a lot of advantages, especially if you’re spending a large amount of time in cities. First and foremost, it’s relaxing. You just float along and look at the scenery. It’s not always beautiful, but it’s usually interesting.

There's a fair amount of this kind of scenery on the train, too. In many areas, Europe is just as ugly as the U.S.

I think this guy was trying to race us.

My first mishap of the trip happened as the train pulled into the station in Brussels. I realized my new jacket (the only one I had brought) was not in the luggage rack with my suitcase. Who knows why. There were multiple opportunities for forgetfulness between Amsterdam and here and anybody who knows me knows that I will take advantage of every opportunity to leave something behind. Oh well . . . or I should say, “C’est La Vie”. I was in Bruxelles and it was going to be fun — jacket or not.

I’ll post soon about our two days in the city of waffles, cartoons, pommes frites, beer, and a certain little boy who urinates all over town. Au revoir!