Monthly Archives: June 2009

Brussels, Amsterdam and the Green Fairy

Posted by on June 26, 2009

The green shot glass on the left was mine

The green shot glass on the left was mine


I’ve left Brussels and have made the short trip to Amsterdam. I enjoyed my time in Brussels but in the end I was left with the question “what is really there?”. Brussels is the capital of the European Union and of NATO, as well as being the capital of Belgium. Unlike Paris or Rome the city isn’t dripping with history. Paris has a 1,000 foot tall iconic tower created for a world expo, Rome has a 2,000 year old Colosseum which is a wonder of the world, and Brussels has a two foot statue of a little boy peeing. It is a functional city, and yes despite stereotypes, the fries and waffles are good. (French fries are in fact not from France, but from Belgium. They came to the US after WWI when soldiers returned.) Many of the fries I had were cooked in animal fat not vegetable oil, which is very hard to find in most restaurants.

The highlight of my stay was the people I meet up with. On Saturday I met up with Ninfa, who is from Honduras, her brother and her Irish boyfriend Tony. They made me dinner in their apartment and later we went out to a bar which had the largest selection of beer, rum and absinthe in the world. I had never had absinthe before and thought I’d give it a try. It had been illegal in the US until recently. Despite rumors of absinthe causing hallucinations, I can report no such effects. It was like doing a shot with cough syrup mixed in.

Canals in Amsterdam

Canals in Amsterdam

All the absinthe drinks seemed to have something to do with fire. The shot I had was in a custom glass with a straw built into the bottom. It almost looked like a Sherlock Holmes pipe. They light the top of the drink on fire then you suck it through the straw from the bottom. You are supposed to suck it really fast so you don’t burn yourself.

The next night I met up for drinks with several twitter users in Brussels: @elise_huard, @melissa_bxl, @mateusz, @janisozoltan, and @Indeneus. It was nice to meet other Twitter users and see how they are using the technology. I think I was the only one with out an iPhone which sort of puts into perspective how long I have been on the road. When I started my trip, there was no iPhone.

Tuesday I took the train to Brugge. I had heard a lot about Brugge so I thought I’d go see it myself. Since the movie “In Brugge” came out it has been getting a lot of attention. It seemed like there were more tourists in Brugge than there were in Brussels. It is a quaint old city but it wasn’t THAT big of a deal.

Bikes in Amsterdam

Bikes in Amsterdam

I’m currently in Amsterdam which, so far, I enjoy immensely. The Dutch are probably the most fluent English speakers in Continental Europe. The English language television shows and movies which are show in the Netherlands are subtitles not dubbed, unlike in France or Italy. Everyone I have meet from the Netherlands, including Dutch people I’ve meet traveling, can speak English better than some Americans I know.

Amsterdam is just like the photos you see. Canals are everywhere and you could almost navigate through the entire city by boat. It is also the most bike friendly city I have ever seen. There are a LOT of bicycles and the roads are built to handle bike traffic. All of the bikes here look like 50 year old Schwinn bikes that my grandmother might have rode. There is a huge diversity of restaurants in city, more than I’ve seen anywhere else in Europe so far. I haven’t seen any of the legendary coffee houses or red light district, but then again I haven’t gone looking for it either.

So far I’ve been to the Rijksmuseum and I’ll be going to the van Gogh Museum today. I also might be going out with Karel, probably our best Where On Google Earth player, to visit some of the World Heritage sites outside of Amsterdam. I also plan on doing a lot of walking and photography. Amsterdam seems like one of the most photogenic cities I’ve visited so far.

Waffeling in Beligum

Posted by on June 19, 2009

After arriving in Belgium, I immediately started to feel ill. At about 8pm last night my whole body started to ache and i felt very tired. Since then I have been sleeping for close to 16 hours. When I went to sleep I had chills and by the middle of the night I was sweating. I feel much better now but my body is still sore and I haven’t eaten anything all day.

Getting to Brussels wasn’t a big deal. The taxi ride from my hotel to the train station was almost as much as the train ticket. One thing I have discovered is that you should never take a taxi in Western Europe. Never. Even a short trip can cost you $20-30. What I saved in my hotel by not being in the middle of Luxembourg was more than offset by the monopoly cost of food and transportation. Local buses didn’t go to the hotel, so if I wanted to take a bus I’d have to walk 2-3km with all my stuff to catch it.

I got off at the wrong station in Brussels so I was disorientated for a bit. I found the easiest solution was to just find a metro station and take the train to the closest metro stop. It was one of those situations where having an iPhone with GPS would have been a huge help.

I ended up finding a hotel at a reasonable price (€35/night) which is surprisingly less than staying in a private room in a hostel. They have free wifi, but only in the lobby. Every time I see a hotel like this I feel like offering to set them up to put wifi on every floor in exchange for lodging. It really isn’t hard to do.

There seem to be a lot of Belgians who read the site and follow me on twitter. If you’d like to meet up while I’m here, just send me an email. You can find it on my contact page. Hopefully I’ll be feeling better tomorrow.

With that, I’m going back to bed.

First and probably last thoughts on Luxembourg

Posted by on June 17, 2009

I’ve left France and arrived in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Despite its size, Luxembourg isn’t even close to the smallest country I’ve visited on my trip. The Vatican, Monaco, San Marnio, Nauru, Macau, Marshall Islands, Cook Islands, American Samoa, Tonga, Guam, CNMI, Micronesia, Bahrian, Singapore, Kiribati, and Hong Kong are all smaller. In fact, I was amazed to find out that that Samoa was larger than Luxembourg. One of the oddities of my trip so far is that because I’ve visited so many small countries, if you look at a map of where I’ve been it doesn’t look like I’ve been to many places at all.

I’m not staying in the City of Luxembourg. I’m staying about 10km out of town which sounded like a good idea based on the price, but getting into town is sort of a pain. There is a village about 1km away which has a bus that is cheap, but the schedule isn’t very good. Taxis here are very expensive. That 10km trip (6mi) is about 22 Euros. The area immediately surrounding my hotel is very serene; all farm land with gently rolling hills.

Beyond its small size and the fact that it is the world’s only remaining grand duchy, what makes Luxembourg odd is the way languages are used. Officially Luxembourg has three languages: French, German and Luxembourgish. Most of the signs I’ve seen appear to be in French and most people seem to be speaking in French. Somethings appear to be in German and as I understand, Luxembourgish is an offshoot of German with French influences. I’m not sure I could tell the difference if I were to hear it. Everyone seems to be fluent in both French and German and both French and German TV stations are shown.

Tomorrow I’m off to Belgium (the other motherland) for a few days before moving on to Amsterdam. The ride from Luxembourg to Brussels should be short but expensive (just like everything else here).

UNESCO World Heritage Site #67: Acropolis, Athens

Posted by on June 17, 2009

World Heritage Site #67: Acropolis, Athens

World Heritage Site #67: Acropolis, Athens

From the World Heritage inscription:

The Acropolis of Athens and its monuments are universal symbols of the classical spirit and civilization and form the greatest architectural and artistic complex bequeathed by Greek Antiquity to the world. In the second half of the fifth century bc, Athens, following the victory against the Persians and the establishment of democracy, took a leading position amongst the other city-states of the ancient world. In the age that followed, as thought and art flourished, an exceptional group of artists put into effect the ambitious plans of Athenian statesman Pericles and, under the inspired guidance of the sculptor Pheidias, transformed the rocky hill into a unique monument of thought and the arts. The most important monuments were built during that time: the Parthenon, built by Ictinus, the Erechtheon, the Propylaea, the monumental entrance to the Acropolis, designed by Mnesicles and the small temple Athena Nike.

I had an eight hour layover in Athens, Greece during my flight from Tel Aviv to Rome. I raced from the Airport with the one objective of visiting the Acropolis. The Acropolis is a small rocky hill in the center of Athens where the Parthanon and other temple buildings are located. There has been extensive restoration there during the 20th century. It is almost impossible to take a photo of any part of the ancient structures without having a modern bit of machinery or support in the photo. Despite the crowds, it turned out that two hours at the Acropolis was more than enough time to visit the site. You are restricted to only walking around the perimeter of the hill because of how old and fragile the ruins are. The Acropolis will also give you the best view of the city of Athens.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #66: Bahá’i Holy Places in Haifa and the Western Galilee

Posted by on June 16, 2009

World Heritage Site #66: Bahá’i Holy Places in Haifa and the Western Galilee

World Heritage Site #66: Bahá’i Holy Places in Haifa and the Western Galilee

From the World Heritage inscription:

The Bahá’i Holy Places in Haifa and Western Galilee are inscribed for their profound spiritual meaning and the testimony they bear to the strong tradition of pilgrimage in the Bahá’i faith. The property includes the two most holy places in the Bahá’í religion associated with the founders, the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh in Acre and the Shrine of the Báb in Haifa, together with their surrounding gardens, associated buildings and monuments. These two shrines are part of a larger complex of buildings, monuments and sites at seven distinct locations in Haifa and Western Galilee that are visited as part of the Bahá’i pilgrimage.

Unfortunately, I visited the Baha’i gardens on a Baha’i holy day so the gardens were closed to visitors. I was able to take some photos from the top of the hill where the gardens are located (Mount Carmel) but that was it. If I am ever in northern Israel again I will make sure to return to the gardens to explore them more thoroughly.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #65: Old City of Acre

Posted by on June 15, 2009

World Heritage Site #65: Old City of Acre

World Heritage Site #65: Old City of Acre

From the World Heritage inscription:

Acre is a historic walled port-city with continuous settlement from the Phoenician period. The present city is characteristic of a fortified town dating from the Ottoman 18th and 19th centuries, with typical urban components such as the citadel, mosques, khans and baths. The remains of the Crusader town, dating from 1104 to 1291, lie almost intact, both above and below today’s street level, providing an exceptional picture of the layout and structures of the capital of the medieval Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem.

A former Crusader castle and Ottoman fort, the old city of Acre is still inhabited today. Mostly home to Israeli Arabs, I witnessed kids going to school and an Arab wedding within the walls of the old city. Much of the original Crusader structures are underground, where an network of tunnels was built.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #64: White City of Tel-Aviv

Posted by on June 14, 2009

UNESCO World Heritage Site #64: White City of Tel-Aviv

UNESCO World Heritage Site #64: White City of Tel-Aviv

From the World Heritage inscription:

Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 and developed as a metropolitan city under the British Mandate in Palestine. The White City was constructed from the early 1930s until the 1950s, based on the urban plan by Sir Patrick Geddes, reflecting modern organic planning principles. The buildings were designed by architects who were trained in Europe where they practised their profession before immigrating. They created an outstanding architectural ensemble of the Modern Movement in a new cultural context.

I try to take at least one representative photo of each World Heritage site I visit. I had a difficult time even knowing what I should be taking a photo of in Tel Aviv. It is by far the most ambitious World Heritage site I’ve visited. There is nothing which jumps out at you. There is no one single building or even collection of buildings that says “this is what we are talking about”. I searched on-line and the one building people mentioned as an example of modern architecture in Tel Aviv was the Cinema Hotel which wasn’t too far from where I was staying.

The White City of Tel Aviv now holds the position of the lamest World Heritage site I have ever visited.

Paris Part Deux

Posted by on June 14, 2009

Suffice it to say that my Paris experience has improved dramatically since the weather improved. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the last several days wandering around the streets of Paris, eating in the restaurants, and seeing the sights. Unfortunately, that hasn’t let much time for blog updates, especially considering the hotel I got moved into does not have any sort of internet.

I met up for drinks with Chris Carriero from iKangaroo.com who lives in Paris. He took me to a Basque restaurant and a local expat pub where the England vs Andorra World Cup qualifying match was on TV (yes, Andorra has a national soccer team). Chris is a former tour guide and is working on some audio guides for cities you can listen to on your iPod. He has recently released an audio guide to Rome following the sites from Angles & Demons. If you are going to Rome, or even if you aren’t, you should check it out.

I’ve also been able to visit Versailles, which totally made me understand why the French had a revolution. It was the most ostentatious thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m surprised that the British monarchs never had quite anything so large and gaudy as the French monarchs did. That might explain why they are still around and the French kings are not.

Today I’m going to the Eiffel Tower, which I actually haven’t bothered to do yet, and hopefully Sacre Coeur.

Like Rome, there is no way I can see everything there is to see in Paris in a single week. You have to come here with the assumption that you will return. I’ll be leaving in a day or two for the Motherland: aka Luxembourg. I’m one of the few Americans, along with my brother, who can claim to have ancestors who come from all three of the Benelux nations: Belgium (my father’s, mother’s family), Luxembourg (my mother’s, mother’s family), and the Netherlands (my mother’s, father’s family). I assume that Luxembourg is the rare card in the set.

Not So Gay Paris

Posted by on June 10, 2009

Since I’ve arrived in Paris, I haven’t been having the best of times. The weather here has been cold and raining. Temperatures have been hovering around 10-15°C (50 to 60°F). On top of the weather I did something stupid on Sunday and ate a slice of pizza which was stupid as it kicked off the wheat induced stomach pains I’ve managed to avoid for so long. On top of that, my hotel has a very poor record keeping system and last night at 10pm I got a knock on my door and the front desk asked why I was in my room as they had scheduled someone else there.

I’ve been focusing on indoor activities since I’ve arrived in Paris which has included a visit to the Louvre, the Museum d’Orsay, and the tomb of Napoleon. The weather reports are predicting more rain on Thursday and Friday so I’m going to try and visit the Eiffel Tower and other outdoor attractions today.

I’ve also suffered a problem with my camera. The ring which houses the lens cap on one of my lenses has come off. It still works fine by it is a real pain to not have a lens cap and makes putting the camera away awkward. Slowly, everything I have with me seems to be falling apart. All of my pants are falling apart at the seams

*NOTE* Since I wrote the above, the hotel notified me that they only had me booked for 2 nights and I have to find another hotel.

I’m hoping the rain lets up. I’m finishing this post at an internt cafe near Notre Dame. It has been raining on and off all day. I was planning on going to Versallies but now I’m going to wait and see how the weather pans out.

If anyone in Paris would like to meet up for drinks or dinner, please contact me via email or Twitter. I should be here at least through Sunday when I think I’ll be going to Luxembourg.

First Thoughts on France

Posted by on June 6, 2009

Photo I took in Paris in 1999

Photo I took in Paris in 1999

I’ve been in France for several days now after my stunning train ride across the Alps from Turin, Italy. It was by far the most beautiful train trip I’ve ever taken and I crossed five national boundaries during the journey: Italy, France, Italy, France, Monaco, France. I have never been in the Alps before so it was quite the experience. Sadly, I didn’t get to take any photos as I was inside a moving train going in and out of tunnels the entire time.

For the forth time on my trip, I am in a country which I have previously visited (the others being Japan, Taiwan and Singapore). I have also been to two French territories at the start of my trip: French Polynesia and New Caledonia. I am hardly a Franco noob, yet I find visiting France a bit more difficult than I did visiting Italy. I think it is primarily due to the language. Italian is very easy to pronounce. If you can read English, you will have little trouble pronouncing most Italian worlds. French, on the other hand, will usually just make you look foolish if you try to pronounce things like you would in English. I feel that I could pick up Italian if I made a concerted effort to try. I’m not sure about French, however. I realize that French and Italian both have similar roots, but for the life of me something about French just doesn’t click with me. As in Italy, the movies and television shows from outside the country are dubbed, not subtitled.

Painting at Chagall Museum

Painting at Chagall Museum

Nice is…..nice. (Sorry, I just had to use that one) The French Riviera isn’t what I thought it would be. I had always heard legends about the beaches here, but honestly, if I were to rank them of all the beaches I’ve seen, it would not rank very high. There is no sand. The coast is very rugged and beaches I’ve seen in Monaco and Nice are mostly gravel. The seashore is very beautiful, but that doesn’t necessarily make for great beaches. Likewise, my trip to Monaco was pretty underwhelming. I’ll be writing more on it later, but suffice to say if you don’t have a mega yacht, it isn’t really designed for you.

Once thing I’ve noticed about France compared to other countries is that you don’t see a lot of mom and pop French restaurants on the street. You’ll find brasseries and cafes, but French cuisine seems to be a really high end thing. (haute cuisine?) You wont find many of the classical dishes with sauces at low end establishments, or at least I haven’t seen any. I don’t know if that is a Nice thing or a France thing, however. I would like to have one high end French meal before I leave the country.

Street scene in Nice

Street scene in Nice

While in Nice I’ve visited the Musee Matisse and Musee Chagall which focus on works from both painters. I was only vaguely aware of either artist prior to visiting the museums. I had heard of the names but if you had challenged me to describe what they did or to identify one of their works I couldn’t have done it. I was very impressed with the works of Chagall. I from what I’ve seen (and subsequent searches online) I think there is a good argument to be made for him being one of the 20th Century’s greatest painters. I wasn’t nearly as impressed with the Matisse works, save for some of the designs he had made for a chapel, which I don’t know if it was ever built. The Matisse museum is located in his former house which is almost as picturesque as the art inside.

Nice is a much more diverse city than I would have expected. There is a sizable population of Africans, Arabs and Asians who live here. The immediate area around my hotel is mostly Asian restaurants and kebob stands. Nice is the second largest city in France, but you’d never guess it. It just doesn’t seem like a huge city. There is no discernible city center with large office buildings. Even Paris has one off in the suburbs (so not to ruin the classic skyline of the city).

I’m always interested in border communities and how political boundaries make such sharp divisions between cultures. Nice used to be part of Italy (called Nizza) and was lumped into all the politics of the Norther Italian region. It was ceded to France in the 19th Century and now you’d be hard pressed to see any evidence of it once being Italian. There are many communities which have switches hands in Europe I’d love to explore, especially the ones which moved between Germany and France. That however will have to be for another time.

Next stop, Paris!