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.

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.