Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The fifth and final European-summer installment: España

The two buddies at La Granja de San Ildefonso
I promise that this blog post about the final part of our three-week European tour will not be as long as the previous two, but then, our sojourn in Madrid was just three days long.
In the fancy-food section on the 9th floor of El Corte Ingles
After flying on Thursday from Brussels on BA miles via Iberia (convoluted, eh?) to Madrid, my old buddy Howard picked us up from Barajas. Nothing beats a friend who lives less than 10 minutes from the airport! Since Howard had to work on Friday, Angela and I were free to take the metro to the city center. It goes without saying that we had to pay a visit to El Corte Ingles, in many ways the Spanish pendant to Berlin's KaDeWe, London's Harrod's, and Paris' Lafayette and Printemps. While our—OK, Angela's—shopping spree was rather moderate in the general areas of the department store, we spent an inordinate amount of time on the 9th floor, in the gourmet food section. Aside from exotic foods such as Stubb's Bar-B-Q sauce (really!) this area features numerous small food stands with wonderful tapas and more. Additionally, there is an incomparable view of the city and the royal palace from up here, and we made a point to sample a few goodies.
The view from the gourmet section and its dining area is worth the lift ride, for sure!
So, I had to travel to Spain to finally find a Grimbergen on tap
I always wanted to try out the "miniature" setting on my camera

Superb ice cream—and the macaroons on the left were filled with it!
What would a visit to Madrid be without stopping by the Museo del Jamon? We ducked in right before the general siesta time, when hard-working folks were on their way home to take a well-deserved mid-day nap but felt the urge for a little nourishment. Well, who can blame them at these prices?
These prices are for real—cheaper than even Berlin
The crowds—not all those hams— were a bit much for Angela
That evening, we went with Howard and Lidya back downtown, for a late meal (oh, we started around 11 p.m.) and a bit of looking around. It is amazing how the Spaniards make the night their day. I've always said, they are total animals!
Posing in front of what must be the world's most ornate post office
BiciMad, the new bike sharing program, uses eBikes! Reportedly, somebody hacked into the on-board touchscreens and a porno image of a nekkid dude greeted renters for a while!
By day or night, Madrid has some amazing sights
After sleeping in on Saturday, Howard invited us on a field trip to the countryside so we'd tank a bit of culture. La Granja de San Ildefonso is one of several royal palaces that date back to the 16th century, and its gardens were designed after those in Versailles. We all agreed that they were actually prettier, especially with all those shade-giving old-growth trees that were lifesavers on this hot summer day. During our first stroll through the extensive garden the 28 fountains with their 496 jets were dry, and we could only imagine what it would look like with water gushing from them. Well, after a break for a beer and delicious food we went back as we were told that the fountains would actually be turned on. What a spectacle—I'll just let the pictures tell the story of La Granja de San Ildefonso.

On Sunday we stayed in Madrid. While Howard and I took a stroll in the close-by Jardin El Capricho, another royal relict, the two ladies went for another shopping excursion to a different Corte Ingles. Somehow, Howard and I ended up in a hip neighborhood fusion restaurant/bar (OK, maybe a gastropub?) to quaff a well-deserved afternoon beer. Before long, his son, Simon, happened to spot our car and joined us, and a little while later Lidya and Angela arrived via taxi, all worn out from shopping and craving the ill-functioning AC inside while we had just wanted to boy-talk while seated outside at one of the sidewalk tables. Tapas appeared (and quickly disappeared), and then Howard's daughter Karen and her boyfriend, Ezekiel, made us a five-some. More food was ordered and consumed.
What looks a bit like a hole in the wall provides actually a fine dining experience
Tapas: lentil-based appetizer with red onions and zucchini
Tapas: baby squid on pizza dough
Tapas: two different types of curry
The cheesecake dessert!
And that's what we really had come for ...
It was close to six o'clock when we made it back to la casa. We lazed around while watching a movie, Angela took an extended nap before packing her bags, and then we had a final meal at a typically Spanish late hour. And on Monday morning we flew back home, after three weeks of Europe.
Madrid to Boston, on Iberia, in Economy! The ignominy of it all!!!
I realize that I never got around to writing anything about our three days in Berlin, where we stayed in the swank Waldorf Astoria and enjoyed the coolest digs of the entire trip. We saw my brother and his sons, did some family business, and took a lovely boat ride on the Spree. But all that seems to lie so far back in the past, especially now that I have been back in Lubbock for two days and life already has changed again. It was a very nice trip, and I am glad that Angela and I will have lots of wonderful memories for a long time to come. Still, it is time to move on. In less than 72 hours I will be in Utah for the next 10 days. Stay posted!


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Belgium is more than friets: Brugge, Oostende, and Brussels

Mention Belgium in the US, and most likely you will draw blank stares. If you talk to a cyclist, chances are that something like cyclocross and Liège-Bastogne-Liège will be dropped. Talk to a beer aficionado, and Jupiler, Leffe, and Hoegaarden will be mentioned. But only somebody who has actually traveled in the country will know what you mean when you talk about friets.
Mid-night snack: friets
See, the Dutch like their French fries, but the Belgians are fed the national staple from day one. Drive along a Belgian secondary road, and eventually you will come across a handmade sign that lets you know "Friets, 200 meters!" When I grew up in Schleiden, just about 10 miles from the Teuto/Belgian border, which in those days still existed, our family would go on the occasional excursion into the Ardennes, to Malmédy or Eupen, and invariably we'd end up eating frites. They'd be unbelievably greasy, soaking through the newspaper-cone into which they were shoveled, and they'd always come with mayonnaise as a sauce—nope, nothing but back in those days. Halfway through eating one of those huge portions you'd realize that your tongue was starting to stick to the roof of your mouth, thanks to the grease. An entire nation fed itself with this staple. No wonder they can persevere in cold, miserable cyclocross races: Their joints are permanently greased!
Antwerp train station
Not much has changed, even though I have not seen a single fritture packaging the fries in homemade newspaper cones. But then, we traveled to only three of the larger cities: Brugge, Oostende, and Brussels. I am sure that proper packaging still exists outside of the metro areas. Mayonnaise no longer is the only choice of sauce as there are numerous other flavors that most likely are no more harmful. As Angela asked: Why aren't there more really fat people here? Good point.
Odd goods at one of the chocolatiers
Cookies, fresh from the artisan
Brugge has some incredible beer stores
At 1.80 euro a pop, these macaroons add up
But Belgium is much more than just friets. I had never been to Brugge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has almost 2,000 years of history. The old city center, which is surrounded by a canal, is home to about 22,000 people who most likely live off the gazillion tourists who arrive at the nondescript train station just on the other side of the moat.

In Brugge, time seems to have stood still
An old Opel!
Unfortunately, we didn't get to take a boat tour. Next time.
We spent two nights here, having arrived Sunday afternoon. Monday was the Belgian Independence Day, but since 75% of the businesses are tourist related there was no dearth of chocolatiers, beer shops, and lace mongers that were plying their respective trades. What a pretty city! The architecture makes you think that you're in some Disney fantasy, while the horse-drawn coaches are reminiscent of Vienna and New Orleans.
That barge barely fit into the locks
Brugge: scenic, even in yucky weather
One of four windmills in the city center
With the weather a bit on the iffy side—yet no rain—the photo opportunities were a bit limited. But we enjoyed the stay, even if the Hotel Academie was no substitute for where we had been staying so far, even though it was more expensive than all of the other places. The first night's dinner was taken in a small restaurant just down the cobbled street—a fabulous Belgian beef stew for Angela and mussels in wine sauce for me. OK, let's not talk about how much it costs to eat out here. We had fun going to the chocolate stores (where Angela managed to piss off the dour female keeper of one of them) and just drifting around the cobbled streets. With several thousand Belgians we stood in the square for the Independence Day concert, singing along to old pop songs that the local COC had chosen for a 35-song sing-along.
Eviva España—one of 35 sing-along songs...
Beer lubricates the vocal cords
City hall in the waning light
From Brugge it is only a 15-minute ride to Oostende, from where ferry boats leave for Dover, gateway to Great Britain. So, before heading for Brussels after two nights in Brugge we decided to check out the coast for a few hours. We spent our time walking along the seaside promenade, listening to the seagulls and me reminiscing about the family trips we'd take to the North Sea. Yep, the water is still murky looking and the wide beach stretches on for miles and miles. Fish stands peddled their wares, and we even spent a few euros on the small aquarium that houses Dover sole, blue-tinted lobsters, and cat shark. After dodging the hundreds of (mostly) Belgian tourists and their kids  we settled in a small  promenade restaurant and had lunch. I have to say, this impromptu side trip was well worth it.
Fishmonger on the promenade
Fishy, crabby, ...
... and mussly
The orange art gives much-needed color to the drab promenade
Good eatin'
Panoramic view on a blustery day of the beach and harbor areas
We spent our last two nights in the Hilton Brussels, a nice place at a reasonable cost (and free drinks for Diamond members like me). Did I mention that I like Leffe and Hoegaarden beer? It had been ages that I had been to Brussels, and I had forgotten how beautiful the city center is. One afternoon we visited the chambers of the European Parliament. Wow, Europe has spent a pretty penny, I mean, cent on these fine digs.
The old city center of Brussels
Inside the Royal Palace
This is where Europe's politicians don't get work done
Angela getting henna'd up
The final opus—2 euros
Angela indulged in one of her favorite past-times, shopping, and even got a henna tattoo from a Moroccan street artist. We ate well, enjoyed the return of sunshine, and marveled at the cosmopolitan nature of Belgium's (and, in a way, Europe's) capital. Lucky for us, the royal palace happened to be open for a few days to visitors, and we seized that (free) opportunity. If you wonder about the significance of "free": Most museums and other attractions in this part of the world will set you back by 10 to 15 euros if you want to visit them.
We never did see Manneken Pis, but this one almost got Angela
What a great name for this street-cleaning device!
Details, everywhere
Hilton, I love you!
And that concludes the Low Countries portion of our trip. One more stop to come: Spain. But that will be covered in the next entry.