Mussels in Brussels…Doug from Belgium & Such

Dear Journal,

I’m afraid this entry may not have the usual pizaz to it. My travels as of late have not had the dramatic story lines that I was becoming accustomed to. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been having a good time!

From Paris I caught a train to Belgium. It seemed like a pretty cool country from what I’ve read about it. I decided Belgium stop #1 would be Bruges. The touristy part of town looks like a perfectly preserved medieval city. It’s so cute! The unfortunate truth though is that for a city to look old like this there had to be a period of severe economic downturn in it’s past. This era of suffering means the town is too poor to modernize and therefore remains stuck in the past. Not so good for the ancestors, but great for the people of the present! Tourism booms in a place like Bruges. The center of town is the Market Square. This was normal for a town in the middle ages. It is always a big open square (where the market is held…who would have guessed…) with the town hall and clock tower on one side. Here’s me at the Bruges Belfry, or Bell Tower in English.
20111006-200725.jpg
I think one of the things Belgians might be most famous for is their chocolate. Everyone knows Belgian chocolate is hard to top. I knew that while I was in this country I had to try some, and Bruges is definately the place to do it! There are chocolate shops on every block here! I love it…although my waistline is not such a big fan. I stopped in the most adorable shop to browse the selection and noticed the ladies whipping up a fresh batch. My habit of asking an annoying amount of questions paid off again as the offered to let me join them. It was an interesting experience, learning to make chocolates, and I think I will bring my newly acquired knowledge home with me. Anyone want me to make them a treat?
20111006-200758.jpg

I was loving the Belgian culture so I decided to stop in on Brussels. This Belgiums larest and capital city. It isn’t the quaint little tourist village stuck in the past, but a urban mix of old & new with a cool “real working city” feel to it. I made sure to stop in and see the major sights, like the Atomion. This big metal structure was built for a World’s Fair in 1958. It is a model of a atomic structure magnified by 165 billion times! Now the structure is rather vast (big enough that you can actually travel through the tubes and visit multiple floor exhibits in each ball) but the atom must be really really tiny for it to be magnified that many times!
20111006-200903.jpg 20111006-200856.jpg
I also saw the Manneken Pis. This is a statue of little boy peeing and has been adopted by not only Brussels, but all of Belgium, as a unofficial mascot/symbol. It is a little odd, but I like quirky, so I’m cool with it. You could hear a lot of tourists commenting on how small he is, but I didn’t see it. Sure he wasn’t life-sized for a regular boy, but he was still bigger than me!

Being Brussels has taught me there is more to Belgian cuisine than just chocolates. Have you ever heard of a Belgian waffle? They started right here. Although the people here find us North Americans rather odd for eating waffles for breakfast. They eat them as an afternoon snack with tea or coffee and they usually just eat them with sugar, no syrup, and no crazy toppings…but I couldn’t resist:
20111006-201301.jpg
Now I know you’ve all heard of the French Fry, but what I just learned is that the only thing French about them is the way they are cut. To French something means to make it into thin slices, like a fry. So technically you could have French carrots or radishes, even if they don’t sound as yummy. So, you ask, if the French is how the fries are cut, where were they invented? The answer: Belgium of course! Why else would I be talking about them now?! The other note I’d like to make about fries is that here they eat them with mayo…odd for a ketchup-lover but quite delicious.
20111006-200850.jpg 20111006-200916.jpg
They was one more edible delight I had to try: Mussels in Brussels! Not only delicious, but also fun to say! They make mussels every way you could possibly want them…but I went with au natural so that I could experience the real strong flavor of the mussels 🙂

When I disembarked from my next train I found myself in Amsterdam. Amsterdam is a city built around an area of man-made canals that for a concentric U-shape around and through the oldest part of the city. They are extremely scenic and offer opportunities for superb photos. They also appeared to be a great place for both locals and tourists to spend a lazy day when the heat gets too much.
20111006-200935.jpg
Amsterdam has another side to it though. In an attempt to combat hard drug use the cities police force has decriminalized majiuana use in the city. This means that although it is not technically legal, no one has been arrested for use or possession in over 30 years. What is legal is prostitution. And there is a whole area of town called the Red Light District that is the center of this industry. I was naive enough to believe this would be far enough from the city center that I would not stumble across it while riding my bike through town (everyone rides bikes here!). Silly Doug, you couldn’t have been more wrong! The Red Light Dostrict is actually only a couple of blocks from both the central rail station and main tourist/shopping strip. When I accidentally rode into the area I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was so shocked I rode my bike straight into the canal! The police laughed as they helped me out but comforted me by stating that they pull about 20,000 bikes out of the canal each year. I felt a bit better, but I assume most of those were stolen and tossed in and didn’t still have a rider on them! But at least I wasn’t one of the fools who drove their car into the water…that happens at least once a week here!

After the craziness of Amsterdam I needed a break, and where would I get a better one than in fairy-tale Luxembourg. This place looks like it’s straight from a storybook, with it’s old style houses, quaint roads of shops and beautiful valley views.
20111006-201324.jpg 20111006-201330.jpg
Here I made a few new friends. I was taking a look at the Royal Palace when it happened. A car pulled up and two young men got out. They were well dressed & good looking and I immediately knew they were someone important. You might be thinking, “Doug you’re in front of the ROYAL Palace, how are you not putting this together?” but my guide book had said the place was rarely inhabited by the royal family so i didn’t jump to conclusions. I could have though because they were in fact the 2 eldest sons of th Grand Duke. The Grand Duke is like the King of Luxembourg, it just has a different name here (because Luxembourg is a Grand Duchy instead of a Kingdom). We got to chatting about the house and then the country in general. They were really great guys and I hope ot see them again. Maybe at the Queen’s garden party? And maybe by them I’ll be able to find a couple of nice girls to fix them up with…

Until next time…
Keep Smiling,
Doug

Advertisements

The City of Love & Lights…Doug de Paris

Dear Journal,

I don’t go looking for trouble…I swear I don’t…but somehow trouble just seems to find me where ever I go! This time it found me in Paris, France.

I began my Paris sight-seeing at Notre Dame. I’ve heard of this famous cathedral because of the story: The Hunchback of Notre Dame. While the novel is beautifully written and well deserves the title of literary classic, I think I prefer the Disney cartoon. The novel has such a depressing ending…especially when you compare it to dancing fools and singing gargoyles. The gargoyles were always my favorite part of that movie so naturally I was excited to see the real things. I was at the church in the early morning so I found myself climbing the long expanse of stairs alone. I didn’t mind; it was so peaceful & quiet when I got to the top and there was no one around, except the gargoyles of course. There is such a variety of figures up there. You see people, elephants and the classic horned demon…ooo scary! I joke, but I did find myself rather frightened when suddenly one was winking at me! I rationalized it in my mind, figuring it was a trick of the early morning light. But that would have been too lucky to have such an ordinary experience. The next time I glanced back, the horned figure had his tounge sticking out. I could have swore that was not the look he’d had before…and then he was laughing. A Notre Dame gargoyle was laughing at me! And soon there was a chorus of laughter as the other sculptures joined in. They were all alive! I should have been more scared, but I found it was like a dream come true. We talked (luckily most of them knew English) and they told me tales of the city and silly tourists (some even take pictures pretending to be a hunchback…). The gargoyles see everything from up here and were able to speak about centuries of Paris history & hilarity…the church is 800 years old! To top it all off, they let me help with the ringing of the morning bells!
20111003-181728.jpg

The Louvre is possible the most famous museum in the whole world. I think in my travels I might be seeing a lot of the worlds most famous things. And that is a pretty good reason for traveling in the first place. But back to the Louvre…this place is huge! There is no way I could have seen everything, no matter how hard I tried. So I picked a few major things I knew I had to see. First, Winged Victory. She is an amazingly dynamic angel…who has no head. Then there is Venus de Milo. She is a perfect goddess of flawless white stone…who has no arms. And of course, Mona Lisa. She is a tiny world famous painting of an intriguing dark-haired woman…who has no smile. Ok, maybe I’m not the biggest art fan, but I did love seeing these pieces. And I think everyone should have that opportunity. That is why, when I saw the man trying to pry the Mona Lisa from her post on the gallery wall, I knew I had to stop him. My next move was completely stupid but my brain seemed to have shut off for a few minutes. I charged at the man yelling something about kidnapping. He started and whipped around to face me. He whipped around so fast that he lost his balance and fell over. He fell right over and whacked his head on the floor. He whacked himse hea don that floor so hard, he whacked himself unconscious. It seems my deranged yelling alerted the guards and they soon came charging into the room. They found me standing next to the theif with the Mona Lisa laying on the floor, but completely unharmed. The painting had been saved…although I feel it should be written more as: the painting had been “saved”.
20111003-181747.jpg

Everyone was so thankful of my “daring” rescue (no matter how many times I told them it was pretty much an accident but they wouldn’t hear it) that they offered to give me a reward. I’m a simple guy, I don’t need much in the way of rewards so I just asked if they would give me a lift & maybe tickets to my next sight. They were happy to get me Versailles passes and a police escort to the palace to boot! I spent a few hours wandering the gardens & house. I could totally live in a place like that! Although all of the gold in the palace made me consider wearing my sunglasses!
20111003-181810.jpg

I ended my day at the Eiffel Tower. I was feeling a little exhausted but there was no way I was going to miss this iconic sight! As soon as it gets dark the whole steel structure lights up. It turns the famous landmark into a most magical & romantic sight. I took the elevator right to the top and admired the view of Paris. The city looked great as it was also shining with lights. They do a really great job here of making their best buildings very visible at night. On the way down I decided to take the stairs…a little exercise can do a body good. It was getting late but the tower was still bustling with people. A young lady was also decending on the staircase in front of me. She had her camera out and was snapping shots left, right & center. Maybe she was a professional photographer, or maybe she was just a really excited tourist; either way I applauded her enthusiasim. Every hour, on the hour after the tower has been lit up, there is a crazy light show. Bright white lights twinkle all the way up and down the tower. It’s amazing to see from the ground and I was fortunate enough to see it from my position on the tower at 11 o’clock. The shutterbug in front of me went crazy for this! It was incredible, although a little disorienting while trying to decent the staircase. And I can only imagine it was even more so while looking through the lens of a camera. That is why I do not blame the poor young lady for her mis-step that sent her tumbling over the staircase railing. Maybe I have a hero complex…that is the only explanation I have for grabbing the rope that happened to be wrapped around the railing next to me, tying it off to the bar & myself and swan diving over the edge after her. She had managed to catch a grip on one of the steel girders below and I plunged down to her height easily. Luckily my rope held! Once at her girder I crawled along until I could pull her up. A crowd had assembled on the stairs above and there were enough strong men to pull myself and the now rather distressed damsel back up to safety. This time when people thanked and congratulated me, I actually felt like I deserved it 🙂
20111003-181825.jpg

Keep Smiling,
Doug

British Invasion…Doug takes England

Dear Journal,

I realize it’s been awhile since I last wrote, I’ve been so busy! First I had to complete my tour of the United Kingdom.

I started in Cambridge. Which means I will be starting this entry with the most unbelievable story! Seriously, you will be tempted to think I am making it up…but even my imagination isn’t great enough for that! I spent my time in Cambridge doing a tour of the Universities, as most people would do. There are over 250 schools in the area, so naturally it took all day. Evening had fallen by the time I reached Sidney Sussex College. The plaque at the front gate stated that they had educated a male figure in English history: Oliver Cromwell. I knew the story of Cromwell (at least I thought I did) but in case you don’t here it is… Cromwell was the leader of the Revolution. He lead the charge that ended with King Charles I beheaded and the reign of the monarchy over. Cromwell ruled the country in a kings stead. When he passed away his body was preserved and buried in Westminster Abbey…but that’s is not where he remained. Without Cromwell as a leader the English people were lost. They turned ot the only person they could think of to take over: Charles II, son of the king they had dethroned. Charles took up the post as King, but did not forget what Cromwell had done. He had his body removed from the Abbey (a place of honor). But that wasn’t enough…no not nearly. He then had the body hung, beheaded and the head placed on a spike on the Westminster Bridge. It remained in that spot for 20 years. Quite the story, eh? I thought so…but little did I know, it was just the beginning…

After wandering the lawn & admiring the many fine structures at Sidney Sussex I decided to see the chapel. I was just going to stop for an exterior look but was surprised to find the door ajar. It seemed awfully late to still be open to visotors, but I thought I’d take advantage of my good fortune…my mistake to think I could actually have any good luck…
20110917-091622.jpg

I mentioned that Cromwell’s head remained on display on the bridge for 20 years…well did you wonder why it finally stopped being up there? It turns out a storm blew it down. The wind was finally too much for the suprisingly well preserved head (remember Cromwells body had been preserved before it was buried) and it toppled onto the cobblestones below. The soldier on duty saw something fall and went to investigate. Can you imagine being this man and finding the object was a severed head? What would you do? I think I might scream, or run away as fast as my legs would take me. Whatever it is I would do it would not be the same as the soldier because he picked it up, wrapped it in a scarf and brought it home with him. The next morning though, when the head was missing, the man heard of the severe punishment they had planned for when they found the great head theif. Panicked, the man shoved the head up his chimney and never told anyone about it. That is until he recounted the whole crazy story to his grand-daughter on his deathbed. She, like any sane person, didn’t really want to have a disembodied head just laying around so she put it up for sale. A surprising number of people were interested in buying Oliver Cromwell’s head. This began a stretch of hundreds of years where the head was bought and sold.

If that were the story’s conclusion I still would have been in the clear, but there I was in the middle of a Cambridge University chapel watching 2 men dressed in black digging things up from below the floor! Well I am not too proud to say it almost scared the pants right off of me! I screamed and ran out of there so fast there was almost a Doug shaped hole in the chapel door. It seemed the commotion I made aroused suspicion and the authorities were called. Suddenly I was being credited for helping catch grave robbers searching for Cromwell’s head. It seems a buyer eventually donated the head back to Cromwell’s old school and they buried it in their chapel. The men would have already have found the head if it wasn’t for the fact that the school had placed a plaque that only mentioned the head was buried somewhere within the chapel, not it’s exact location. There had been enough issues with this head in the past, they didn’t want it to go missing again!

After that insanly frightening encounter I decided I should probably Lear to better defend myself scary people…like head grave robbers. And who better ot learn from than the man who battled the rich to save the poor for years…Robin Hood. I swung by Nottingham on the way to my next destination and got a few lessons. Here we are practicing our archery:
20110917-091631.jpg

I thought I’d be safe in York. Their main attraction is a gorgeous cathedral called York Minster right in the center of town. I enjoyed the stained glass windows. That is always my favorite part of a church.
20110917-091937.jpg

Feeling much more content I went to the Jorvik Viking Experience. It turns out the first inhabitants of York ha been the Vikings. There was an exhibit about their way of life, another about the artifacts that had been found from this time period and yet another about the archeological dig that had unearthed these treasures. I find archeology fascinating and read through this part thoroughly. I was immersed in the info board that I almost missed the shadow of a child run by. At first I thought it was a stray kid who had wandered away from it’s arena…but I was alone in the room. Then I saw it again and noticed it was wearing clothes that would not have fit in this millennia, let alone this decade. It was a Viking ghost! I am not proud of it, but for a moment I froze in terror. You don’t see ghost everyday! But then I realized it was not going to hurt me. I tried to converse with it but the few faint words I could hear were in a language I could not understand. It leaves me rather curious as to what the child wanted. I made sure to tell the staff about it on my way out. Hopefully they will call in a medium that can help the poor little boy out.
20110917-091944.jpg

Heading south-east from York, I found myself in Chester. This is a city with a long, interesting history. It was first founded as the city fo Dewa by the Romans almost 2000 years ago as a military settlement. I repeat, 2000 years! Thats a crazy long time ago! Eventually the Romans Legionaries (which is what they called their soldiers) were told they could leave their station here, but many had married the womain the area and chose to stay. That’s when the military encampment became a town. Over time it grew, but also feel into a state of disrepair. Eventually Queen Victoria showed up and declared the place should be fixed up! She commissioned the building of countless Tudor style buildings’ those are the ones that are black & white (or two tones in neutral colors) with the exposed wood mounted right in the building walls. As I wandered about taking in the history I happened across an archealogical dig. Curious, I started talking the archeologists & volunteers’ ears off with all of my questions. Eventually, mainly because I think they wanted to quiet me down, they asked if I wanted to join them. I was thrilled and obviously jumped at the chance. I spent the rest of the afternoon digging through 3m of history, as that’s how far down the Roman ruins are located. On top of the Roman artifacts there are layers from the saxon, medieval and post-medieval eras. It was all very educational. But this was one educational experience I will never forget…definitely better than sitting in class trying not to fall asleep…
20110917-092001.jpg

My next stop was Startford-Upon-Avon. My new interest in acting naturally drew me to the birthplace of the bard himself, William Shakespeare. After the experiences I’ve been having lately I wondered if perhaps I’d meet the man himself…if I was going to see a ghost I wanted it to be an interesting one! I decided I’d carry out my faux-ghost hunt at Shakespeare’s birthplace. This is a big Tudor style house. It was interesting to see how people lived back then. I can safely say I like being in this century, with electricity, running water & modern plumbing!
20110917-092009.jpg
I didn’t run into any spirits but I did meet a nice troupe of actors. Their job is to perform scenes from Shakespearse’s vast collection of works (he wrote ????????? !) in the house’s garden by request. Kindly they let me try my hand at a few scenes. Shakespeare is not an easy thing to tackle and my memory is not as good as the professionals, but I muddled through. I even earned a few applause from the crowd, although they could have just been applauding the attempt and not the actual quality of the performance.

In the end this is as close as I got to meeting Mr. Shakespeare:
20110917-092018.jpg
Oh and just for fun, here’s me and Hamlet:
20110917-092025.jpg

Positioned coviently close ot Stratford is Warwicks Castle. It is a real medieval castle that has been converted into an almost theme park like attraction. There are exhibits and shows, and even a dragon encounter. I personally was interested in watching the castle knights at work. After a show of jousting the began to battle with swords, bows & axes. I cheered along enthusiastically with the rest of the crowd…maybe a little too enthusiastically… Before long they were asking for volunteers and I was being dragged up into the fray of the ancient style battle. My movie stunt training was not near enough to pull me through but my time training with Robin Hood helped a lot. In the end our side of the fight was victorious and I like to think that it was partially because of me. People tend to underestimate a man of my size!
20110917-092252.jpg

Ater all that craziness I really just needed a break…a guy can only take so much! I found some peace & relaxation in Bath. This town was founded by the Romans over 2000 years ago…yes another ancient city. They built here because of the miraculous hot water that seemed to sprout from the earth. The hot springs they discovered have been used for thousands of year. Over a thousand years after the Romans left, the Kings & Queens of England decided they wanted to sit & splash in the natural hot water (and heal…they believed the water had healing powers). And if the royals were doing it, so was everyone else….and now so am I! Although you can’t still go in the original baths today, check out the green water…
20110917-092302.jpg
…you can visit the Thermea Spa just down the road. After my visit I will be ready for any adventures life throws at me!

Keep Smilling,
Doug