Bruges & Ypres

From Brussels we made two daytrips, one to Bruges and one to Ypres.

Bruges is rumored to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, perhaps one of the half-dozen cities that claim to be the “Venice of the North.” We visited on a drizzly Monday, in which all the museums were closed and everything was wet. I don’t recommend doing that, and won’t let it color my observations too much.

Boat tours in the city are cheap and worthwhile; they take between 30 and 45 minutes. Less expensive food can be had off of the side streets. There’s a church tower to climb and some neat windmills around the edge of the city, and mostly I just enjoyed walking around.

Our second daytrip from Brussels was the area in and around Ypres, where we visited some Commonwealth and German cemeteries. The countryside in the region is dotted with battlefields, and we even visited a spot where you can walk inside a reconstructed trench.

The best part was our guide, who knew plenty about the area and the war. One remarkable stop was Caterpillar Crater, a 50ft deep crater created by a British mining operation in the Battle of Messines in 1917.

It was eerie to walk through a cemetery containing some 40,000 dead, and even more strange to know that it’s only a fraction of the millions killed in the war. We’re approaching the 100th anniversary of WWI, so I’m sure there will be a great deal of public reflection over the next several years.

On a lighter note, the last few days in Brussels found me at a Bahamas concert at Botanique. He was by far the best solo performer I’ve ever seen, and the crowd was really diggin’ it. Also, the concert was in another underground brick basement, which seems to be all the rage in Brussels.

Brussels

Waffles, chocolate, and the capital of Europe.

This last week was a tremendous change of pace. We had our mid-semester break (which I spent in Ireland and the UK,) two weeks of class, then this FU-BEST program trip to Brussels, Belgium.

I’m not a fan of group travel in the slightest, and it took some real determination to stay with the fifty-odd students schlepping baggage from train to train from Berlin to Amsterdam and away to Brussels. Things just take longer, and tour groups have this frustrating tendency to block the sidewalks and right-of-way.

Nonetheless, Brussels is a beautiful town, and the culture is wholly unique. The northern half of the country speaks Dutch and the southern French. Brussels, nearly in the middle, speaks both. English is very common, as Brussels is home to both the EU and NATO.

Brussels surprised me with one of the largest churches in the world, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. it’s one of the ten largest in the world, and the largest building in art-deco style. It can hold up to 3,500 visitors and there’s a great view from the top, where you can see across the city to Atomium, a large inhabitable sculpture built for the world’s fair in 1958.

Eclecticism is the style of choice in Brussels, and one of my favorite buildings is the Old England building (below.) It’s classic art-nouveau, with fantastic iron work in organic patterns. Inside is the Museum of Musical Instruments, where you listen to the various instruments through headphones as you walk through the galleries. Definitely one of my favorite museum experiences.

Speaking of, we also visited the René Magritte museum, which is straight-up the best art exhibition ever, and the comic book museum, which is pretty cool (Brussels is home to Tintin and many other comics, wahoo!)

Brussels also found us on a tour of the Cantillon Brewery, unique because it’s one of the last lambic-style breweries in the world. They begin the fermentation process in the open air to utilize naturally existing yeast instead of yeast injection like most breweries. The result is a brew that’s incredibly unique, and held in high-regard by beer-enthusiasts the world over. For some though, it’s a bit too sour.

The chocolate, waffles, and fish in Brussels were awesome, ’nuff said.

We also found a unique Brussels experience in an underground music festival on the edge of the city. Held in a gigantic underground brick cellar, we heard some interesting music from Italy and Denmark.

Besides Brussels I also traveled to Bruges and Ypres, but I’ll save those for the next post (they were beautiful!)

Daytrip to Brandenburg

A trip westward, and some neglected odds and ends.

Last week I wasn’t feeling especially chipper, and I decided to head out an hour westward to the little city of Brandenburg. I took the S-Bahn (aboveground rail) as far as Wannsee, then hopped on a regional train for the (gorgeous) hop out towards Brandenburg.

Once I got my bearings I crossed the southern half of the city and rented a bicycle for €10. Brandenburg seems like a place that Germans  would visit, with a casual smattering of towers, gates, churches, and market squares in a very livable town. The river Havel marks the division between the old and new city, and is crossed by several lovely bridges. Cool thing: the Havel is joined by the Spree River in Berlin before it runs through Brandenburg; it then courses westward and empties into the Elbe, which flows through Hamburg and into the North Sea. Rivers are great.

Anyways, the neighboring lakes and towns are within easy cycling reach, and it made for a nice afternoon.

Now, rewinding a bit, one of my favorite art-experiences thus far was my visit to the Margaret Bourke-White photography exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. Kind of a two-in-one, the building was designed in neo-renaissance style by Martin Gropius, the great-uncle of Walter Gropius (who built the Bauhaus school in Dessau). Inside this marvelous building I bought the combo ticket for Michael Schmidt’s exhibit as well, but that collection sucked.

Margaret Bourke-White of course was fabulous, and her photographs were arranged chronologically from her industrial photography in the 1920′s to her time with Life magazine as an attached photographer with various air and ground units in WWII. Extra special were the displays of correspondence between Bourke-White and Eleanor Roosevelt, Ansel Adams, and other brilliant characters from the era.

Also: she photographed Joseph Stalin, smiling. The portrait is captivating, especially in hindsight. She took the photograph in 1941, and in her writeup for Life remarked on his sombre disposition. As she dropped her bag and gathered up the rolling flashbulbs, she caught just a hint of a smile from Stalin. She captured the look, and it has the same sense of mystery as the Mona Lisa. Just… deadlier.

Up next week is Belgium with the FU-BEST program; can’t wait to see Bruges!

London

A very lively place.

London is one of the finest cities that I’ve had the privilege of visiting–it feels as though New York took a tremendous step backwards in time. London is also nearly three times as populated as Berlin, with a metro population of ca. 12.5 million people.

Here I noticed a gradient of social differences between Berlin, Limerick, Dublin, and London. In Berlin I hardly ever see the police, unless they’re stationed somewhere. They wear these muted jackets and aren’t at all interested in jaywalking (ahem, Seattle.) In Limerick they were much more present, with fluorescent uniforms–though I’ve been told they don’t carry guns. Dublin was perhaps a step-up, with greater CCTV presence.

London however, reminds me very strongly of the militarized police force in the U.S.–the cops were very visible and there’s CCTV everywhere. It’s a constant reminder that both the U.K. and U.S. share some history as the targets of terror.

“The Tube” is extensive and a relatively inexpensive way to get around the city, and makes it quite easy to overnight 20 or 30 minutes outside of the city center. The London Eye was a great experience, a 30 minute ferris-wheel sunset tour of the Thames and beyond. It was easy to spot the Parliament House, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and other landmarks. Opposite all of these stands The Shard, the EU’s tallest skyscraper and historically one of the first to progress with planning and construction after the WTC attacks. Harrod’s, a gigantic luxury department store, made for a good end-of-day visit.

The next few days took us to Borough Market, a sprawling marketplace that dwarfs Pike Place. Also impressive was Covent Garden, another indoor/outdoor market with more permanent retailers. We also had a peak around Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace, both beautiful structures surrounded by well groomed green space. The Tower Bridge sits right next to the Tower of London, and the contrast in this part of the city between the new and the old feels conspicuous though not inappropriate.

We also made the touristy (but practically obligatory) stop at Warner Bros. in London for the Harry Potter Studio Tour, which was a real treat. A ways out of the city, the tour contains innumerable props, costumes, set pieces, and special effects rigs from the movies. I was particularly fond of the full-size animatronic horse/eagle Buckbeak, and the miniaturized shooting model of Hogwarts was terrific. The level of care and detail invested in the films is absolutely incredible.

Overall, London made for a great stop. It’s a big city with plenty to explore, and I’m sure that the longer you stay the more cultural events you’ll find. Nonetheless I was happy to head back to Berlin–I like this place.

Ireland

To the land of sheep (Schafe) and green grass.

First stop on my mid-semester break adventure was Limerick, Ireland and the University of Limerick. My friend Julia from Chapman was super awesome and let me stay a few nights in her student housing, and I had a terrific time exploring the city and the (gorgeous) university. Limerick is the third largest city in Ireland, though it’s definitely not a tourist town.

I was nearly overwhelmed with the cheerful kindness of the Irish- look confused on the sidewalk and someone will undoubtedly ask if you need directions. The busses don’t exactly run on time, and this combined with the general atmosphere felt quite different than the orderliness of Berlin. The restaurants and pubs are also loud; much, much, more boisterous than any spots in Berlin. The Germans are just quiet people.

Julia’s friend Danny was a terrific chap and took us to a hurling match, a sport surprisingly similar to LaCrosse, though played with short wooden paddles and a good deal more contact. Limerick won the game, AND I got insider info throughout the match from an elderly irishman sitting next to me. Cheers.

The next stop after Limerick was Dublin, where I met up with Allie. Dublin is an interesting place- our hostel was right in Temple Bar, which is definitely the most pub-filled touristy section of the city. It’s a great place to stay for sure, but I’m not sure that we really found “authentic” Dublin.

We had a great time nonetheless, and had a look around most of the city’s big sites. The Guinness tour was a fun distraction, and we even saw King Lear at the Abbey Theater. Live professional theater always makes me feel sophisticated.

The next day found us in Howth, a coastal town only thirty minutes from the city. We made a great hike out of the trip and I definitely felt a little longing for home. I miss the water!

We also visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a monument not only to St. Patrick but also to Jonathan Swift–Irish satirist extraordinaire and author of A Modest Proposal.

Next up was London- I’ll put that in the next post!

The World’s Largest Film Festival

I feel like one lucky kid;

By some happenstance my time Berlin overlapped perfectly with the Berlinale Internationale Filmfestspiele. It’s the world’s most attended festival, with near to 400 films screening and hundreds of thousands of visitors.

The advertising for the fest was eye-catching to say the least; the city’s icon and animal on it’s coat-of-arms is the bear. With relatively inexpensive (though sometimes hard-to-get) tickets, the Festival is open to all levels of the public.

All in all I ended up catching four films; two with my Contemporary European Cinema class: Je ne suis pas mort and  Ze Marksa… and two on my own: …Moddhikhane Char and Side Effects.

I saw the first two films at the Cubixx theater near Alexanderplatz; nothing too special except that it’s built vertically and our theater was on perhaps the equivalent of the sixth or seventh story; it was also tremendously large with gorgeous, comfortable seats. €3.95 will get you either a water or a beer, Hello Germany.

Char I saw at the Delphi Filmpalast near Zoologischer Garten- it’s old and beautiful. The last film, Side Effects, I caught at Friedrichstadt-Palast. It’s a gigantic, state-of-the-art 1,900 seat theater with the largest stage in the world at 2,854 square meters of performing space. Furthermore, the projection equipment is supposed to be the best available, and I think it’s one of the most beautiful projections I’ve ever seen. Jaw dropping stats aside, the movie was great.