Mechelen Surprise

I made the slight mistake of writing off Mechelen from my itinerary. I mean, no one has heard of it, and I don’t know anyone who has ever been there or who plans to go there. And when I looked up on the internet, there were no tours going to this place. So, I was really down to zero expectations for this city.
Which actually turned out to be a good thing – I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Mechelen (our base for three days in Belgium) is actually a charming old town with cobblestone streets, gabled buildings, and a town square that would fit right in with any medieval movie. It was a gem waiting to be (re)discovered.
It was a downcast day when we got there and I was freezing (it was I think 15C – too cold for a girl from the tropics), so I slept the entire day in our hotel. Lucky for me, the sun sets at around 11PM so when I woke up for dinner at 6 or so, it only felt like midday.

My first glimpse of the city as I walked about on our first day was of this lovely canal with cafes dotting the sidestreets.
Just about every corner of Mechelen is picturesque. I didn’t even mind the 30-minute walk from our hotel to the train station. Every day. By my lonesome. Normally, you’d hear endless complaints from me but the streets were too pretty and the weather perfect that I thoroughly enjoyed those long walks (not to mention that they saved me eight euros a day, hahaha). Even the hubby was surprised – he knew I would never hesitate splurging on cab fare if I didn’t want to walk. Anyway, for those wondering, Mechelen is right smack between Antwerp and Brussels and is about 20-minutes away from either city by train (if you arrive at the right time, otherwise, the wait is about 15-20 minutes for the next train). Very convenient.

Even the stones on the streets are pretty, I couldn’t resist taking a photo.

Look, there’s even a pond with actual ducks in the middle of the city! This would never happen in Manila. This is the first photo in this series of European posts taken by hubby. I don’t like sharing photo credits with him and I was the one who usually totes the camera on travels but I wasn’t able to take this shot so there 😀

The Grote Markt (told you you’d read this term many times in my Belgium posts) of Mechelen is quite small, the city itself being small compared to the likes of Brussels but it is one of my favorites. It has a very grand cathedral, lots of old buildings, and yet the square is small enough to be considered cozy. Imagine a snowball with a little village inside – that’s the kind of memory Mechelen stirs in me.

Taken from one of the “shopping streets” off the Grote Markt

More shops

Restaurants near the cathedral

Margaret of Austria
One of the nicest buildings you’ll see in Mechelen is the Saint-Rombouts Cathedral (Rumbold for us non-Dutch), a very imposing structure (even more pronounced since it’s the biggest and tallest in the area) right in the Grote Markt (but of course!).
Construction of the church was started something in the 12th century and well into the 15th century, but the tower was started only in the 15th century. Originally supposed to reach 167 meters (including a spire that was to be put above the tower), financial reasons forced it to stop at 97 meters. I read somewhere that there more than 500 steps to reach the top of the tower and from there you can have marvelous views of the city but unfortunately, entrance closes early and I can’t really climb the 500 steps at the moment (for obvious reasons). I would have loved to though.
I swear, there is no ugly angle to this church. It’s not too big and yet it looked so grand. It reminded me again of the city of Gondor (from Lord of the Rings). 
View of the cathedral tower from the Grote Markt – with the Challenger ride from the amusement park nearby

Inside, I was just struck dumb. I mean, I know there are a lot of beautiful churches in Europe but this one just felt so solemn, what with all the statues of the apostles looking down on you, and church music (Gregorian?) filling the air. At certain times during the day/week, you could even hear carillon concerts. I find it hard to describe the sound – imagine tingling bells chiming in perfect harmony. But whatever, it was quite magical and literally music to my ears. Mechelen is actually the carillon capital of the world and has the Royal Carillon School where students learn how to play the carillon.

Beautiful stained glass windows
View of the interior  from the altar

The fact that it was so quiet, apart from the soft music playing, and the overall solemnity of the place tugged at my heartstrings. I actually couldn’t help but cry – a good thing I was the only visitor inside the church. Can you believe??? It was empty! I feel really bad for the churches in Europe, where I think a lot of people don’t go to church anymore. I hope they don’t fall to ruins (and I hope the faithful can find their way back to the fold).

Lit candles for myself, hubby, Joey and our little bun in the oven

There are a lot of quaint restos in Mechelen but hubby had been craving Chinese food (or anything with rice for that matter) so we ended up at Golden House Chinese restaurant. 
Bad idea. The food took forever (more than 30 minutes since the guys ordered while I was still on the train from Brussels), and when it did reach us after we followed up, the server was stomping and the plates were all clattering on the table. I was almost worried she would break them. As for the taste? It was the blandest I ever tasted in my life. It looked appetizing enough but I had to dump tons of soy sauce just to make it acceptable.

It felt like such a rip off – expensive food, poor service, and get this – they don’t have house water and since you’re bound to drink water anyway, prepare to spend at least 5 euros. A “glass” of water offers little more than a 250ml tetrapack of juice. And a single glass costs about 2+ euros.

Hubby and I felt so bad that we felt it necessary to offset it with a good dose of sugar. Fortunately for us, there was a waffle stall at the Grote Markt where I had seriously to die for waffles complete with melted Belgian chocolate, fresh strawberries and lots of cream. It was soooooo good that even after I left some overnight on my night table at the hotel, it still tasted marvelous the morning after. And it only cost three euros!
I am salivating just looking at this

I enjoyed Mechelen so much I was almost sad to see the sun set on our last night there.

When hubby and I do get to Europe again, Mechelen will surely be one of our stops. There are still so many old churches and museums to explore there!

Whirlwind in Ghent

Ghent was my first city tour by my lonesome and the 2nd city in Belgium where I saw these lovely canals with even lovelier guild houses. I don’t know what it is about canals and old houses but they are just postcard-perfect, aren’t they?

And what I really loved about my trip was that everywhere, they were able to preserve the old structures. I swear, walking around felt like being in a period movie setting. I think I might have lived in the Middle Ages in my past life coz everything felt right at home.
According to our guide, the 3rd house from left is the oldest of this bunch – built in the 13th century.
Our first stop was actually the Saint Bavo Cathedral but I didn’t get a decent photo of it because it was being repaired and was covered from top to bottom in steel planks and whatchamacolit which is too bad. 
View from the entrance to the Cathedral

Inside though, you’d be impressed with the elaborate naves of the cathedral. (Come to think of it, the European churches appear to be the inspiration for most of the towers, castles and dwarf kingdoms in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, especially that long dark expanse of Moria where Gandalf met his end).

As with most other churches in the region, the site was previously occupied by a 10th century chapel , and later on an old Romanesque church, portions of which can be seen in the Cathedral’s crypt. The church was ultimately replaced in the 13th century and expansion works continued all the way up to the 16h century, leaving us with the present day Cathedral. WHEW. Talk about a very looong construction period. But no wonder old buildings were built to last and look grand – our ancestors took their sweet time. Nowadays, it’s all about speed, and we end up with cold, uninspired buildings most of the time. Tsk tsk.

Another ornate pulpit carved in the mid-18th century by Laurent Delvaux. I think I like this better than the all wood version. The white carvings provide a nice contrast to the dark color of the wood.

I didn’t know about the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb polyptich by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, considered by many as one of the most important artworks in Belgium, otherwise, I would have gladly paid the 4 euros to see it (or perhaps it was being restored at the time, since I didn’t see a sign for it). It was a masterpiece so precious that a treaty had to be signed in WWII for it to be safely moved country to country to avoid damage and/or destruction. 
I did see, however, another Rubens painting inside the Cathedral so I didn’t leave Ghent empty-handed.
Saint Bavo Enters the Convent, by Peter Paul Rubens

Across from the Cathedral is the Belfry Tower, with the Cloth Hall at its base. It is one of three towers in Ghent (along with Saint Nicholas Church and Saint Bavo Cathedral) that dominates the skyscape of the city.

The Belfry Tower

A belfry may be nothing more than an aesthetic touch nowadays, but in the Middle Ages, it was also served a very important function of being the watch tower. It warned the people of impending attacks to their city from beyond their walls.
My feet were starting to ache and I wanted to ride in one of these so badly. Unfortunately, I also didn’t want to go alone and risk being left behind by our group.
A few steps away from the Cathedral is the Saint Nicholas church, one of the oldest churches in the city, completed around 1220 – 1250. It was built in the Schedlt Gothic Style (named after the nearby river), most obvious features of which are the grey stones and the tiny turret.
I don’t know what settings I used in this particular photo – I was rushing off because I got left behind by our group (trust me to linger too long looking at old huildings and this wasn’t part of our stop, but I just had to snap a photo). The colors just seem to pop. But it is really as pretty in person.

I have no idea how many Catholics there used to be in the middle ages but again, just a short distance from Saint Nicholas is Saint Michael’s Church, completed in 1530. Right beside it is the Saint Michael’s Bridge, from where I took the photo of the river.
Saint Michael’s Church
Okay, the Gravensteen Castle is my first castle in Europe (I posted Antwerp first but I visited this city first). I mean, I’ve seen the Louvre and Versailles earlier but those are gigantic palaces; this one is grand on a smaller scale and people, it has a freaking moat! Hahaha! It was built around 1180 and used by the Counts of Flanders as their seat until the 14th century. It was then used as a courthouse, a prison, and ultimately abandoned. It was restored in the late 19th century and now houses a museum.

The Gravensteen (Castle of the Count)
We were only in Ghent for a couple of hours that day and our last stop before we headed out to our next destination was this lovely post office. It’s not exactly old, after all, it was built “only” at the beginning of the 20th century.
If only our post office looks like this.
I don’t normally like walking, except when I’m shopping, but if the weather is at a cool 15C and the sights are this beautiful, I would gladly walk all day.

Wandering Aimlessly in Brussels

I was pretty much on my own during the Belgium leg of our trip and as much as I wanted to be adventurous and figure out the many cities nearby on my own, my present condition prevented me from doing so. It would have been a nightmare enough to get lost in a foreign country where majority of the people speak either Dutch and French, but to be pregnant and lost at the same time? No, thank you.
So I did the predictable and got me on some tours. But, since our base was in another city and all the tours started in Brussels, I still had to haul my ass off to the train station and get to the capital city. Every day. It’s a good thing it was cold – like 14C cold so I had no problems at all walking 30 minutes everyday from our hotel in Mechelen to the train station. And thanks to google maps,the nice policeman at the Brussels Central train station (who only spoke French apparently – he had to look for a colleague who could translate the directions for me), and this talent of reading train maps I seem to have developed late in life, I got on alright.
Anyway,  enough about that. As I said, Brussels was my starting point every day. I’d get there early in the morning (8:30! Imagine I had to leave Mechelen really early to get on the right train) and head back to Mechelen close to 9PM each day. A good thing the travel agency was right beside the Galeries Royale Saint Hubert and there were restos nearby. I got to try Gaufre de Bruxelles, with their huge serving of beef stew with Belgian fries and corn salad. Oh so yum. And then I drowned everything with a mug of hot cocoa. I wanted to try their waffles but there was no way I could still fit it into my tummy after my lunch.
My 20 euros-something lunch was well worth it – serving was so huge I only ate half of it.
The Galeries Royale Saint Hubert is actually made up of two connected halls, the Galerie du Roi and the Galerie de la Reine (King’s Gallery and Queen’s Gallery), each more than 100 meters long. There’s also a shorter, perpendicular hall called Galeries des Princes (Gallery of the Princes). It’s apparently the oldest covered shopping arcade in the world (or in Europe??? Do let me know?), and was built mid-19th century to transform the then ill-lit alleyway into something the upper-class wouldn’t mind hanging around in. In short, they wanted to make the place more sosyal, hence, putting up the shopping complex. 😀
I didn’t get to go inside most of the shops though, since they opened late and were close by the time I would get back to Brussels from whichever city was my itinerary that day. But luckily, the cafes and chocolate shops close a little later so I was able to snap some pics.
Godiva and Neuhaus have shops in the Galeries. I read somewhere that Godiva isn’t really favored by the locals and that Neuhaus is the place to go (which explains why I didn’t find Belgian chocolates that good when hubby kept giving me Godiva – I’d take my Swiss chocolates over Godiva any day) and when I finally got to try some of their products (did you know Neuhaus invented pralines?), I fell in love. Hahaha. Not sure if the malls in our beloved PH carry Neuhaus but they do have a stall at the NAIA – so you will surely see me there.
Darn! I should have tried their macarons!
On our last day in Belgium, we heard mass at the Co-Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, located atop the Treurenberg Hill in Brussels. The present cathedral was built at the beginning of the 13th century and took close to 300 years to complete! It was built on top of an old chapel from the 9th century.
View from a park bench across the street of the Brabant-Gothic style Cathedral. It brings to mind the Notre Dame in Paris, on a smaller scale.
Again, I am awed by the interiors of European churches. They’re all so grand. This cathedral  is more airy and exudes a lighter atmosphere compared to others, perhaps because it appears to be freshly scrubbed and painted and therefore, doesn’t look so gloomy.
Apostles looking down on you.
St. Gudula, patroness of Brussels, daughter of a duke and St. Amalberga.
Michael the Arcangel
One of the side chaples. Look at all those chandeliers and stained glasses!
The Grenzing Great Organ
Oak pulpit, carved in 1699.
Resting our feet at the park across the cathedral while figuring out which way to go
On my way out of the city for one of my tours, we passed by this structure which reminded me of the Sacre Couer in France. Turns out, it is the Sacre Couer (of Belgium!). According to our guide, King Leopold went on a visit to Paris in the early 20th century and when he saw the church, he wanted to have one built in his own country.
After mass, we went to the Grand Place (Grote Markt) of Brussels. Hubby had been raving about this place from his previous trips to Belgium and while it is the biggest of all the grote markts I’ve seen across five cities in Belgium, it kind of lost its appeal since I prefer the one in Bruges more.
Of course, what’s Belgium without all the chocolates, right? Every street has at least one shop and at the Grote Markt, there are rows and rows of chocolate and sweets shop.  There’s actually a saying that the Belgians can make chocolate out of anything.
Mannekin Pis candies and chocolates
We didn’t have enough time to spare to visit Herge and his famous creation, Tintin, but we did go inside a Tintin shop, tucked away between sweets shops.
Oh, and before saying goodbye to Brussels, we just had to see the fuss that is the Mannekin Pis – a statue of a little boy peeing. For some reason, this bronze fountain sculpture has become a national symbol of Belgium. There’s no definitive story as to its existence but the one I like most is the one also often told to tourist:  that of a father who lost his kid and had the fountain made as gratitude to the locals who helped find him, urinating somewhere.
Anyhow, the statue gracing the fountain is now just a replica of the original from 1619, probably because it kept getting stolen and had to be kept somewhere safe.
If you have limited time in Brussels, I would suggest you start the day visiting the Cathedral, then go straight down the hill and cross the street. From there, the Galeries Royale is but a short walk (you’d be at the Galerie de la Reine end of it). Once you’ve had your fill of shopping (there aren’t many shops actually, but they do have cafes, a movie theater, and Delvaux and Longchamp stores), just exit the gallery from its main entrance and head for the side straight across – and voila! The Grote Markt is right in front of you. The Mannekin Pis is located in a side street off the Grote Markt.
* I still owe my Ghent, Mechelen, Bruge and Paris posts. Stay tuned! 🙂

Daily Fashion: Repetto and Lancel

Let’s take a short break from all the travel posts, shall we?
As I said, I didn’t get very lucky shopping in Europe. Silly old me didn’t do any prior research and had assumed malls operate the same hours they do here. So, imagine my shock when I learned almost all of them close at 6PM!
While I wasn’t planning on any major shopping, I had a couple of stuff I wanted to buy. I did manage to get these two lovely stuff for my birthday. 🙂
Meet my new pair of shoes and bag!

I’ve always wanted to buy a pair of Repettos but didn’t dare get it online coz a lot of people have said they don’t run true to size. They did open a boutique here in the Philippines early last year but it was so expensive to get it from here. Fyi, Repettos are made by ballet shoes (and clothes/accessories) experts so they’re bound to be one of the most comfortable pair you can own.
I wanted to get a red pair but too bad they didn’t have any. It was sale time when we went to Europe and just about all the nice colors are gone. Or if they do have the nice colors, they were in all the wrong sizes. I’m a bit partial to blue so at least I got one I like.  But I think I abused it walking all over Belgium.
As for the bag, well, you all know I’m not logomaniac. In fact, I try to avoid stuff with screaming logos. And I am also partial to slouchy and small bags (as opposed to the structured/boxy ones) so this Lancel Flirt bucket bag with discreet logo was just purrrrfect for me. I’ve been wanting to buy it ever since I personally laid eyes on it in Hongkong last year but wasn’t able to. 
So there you have my little shoe and bag reveal. 🙂

I Didn’t See Nello and Patrasche in Antwerp …

…nor did I see any diamonds (Antwerp is the diamond center of the world – where 70% of the total diamonds globally are traded!), not that I could afford one. Haha. Our guide said there used to be diamond tours but insurance companies got in the way and so on so we had to satisfy ourselves with a small room-full of diagrams and pictures about diamonds. Which of course, I didn’t see. Heck, what’s the point if I can’t see real glittering baubles? I’d rather just stare at the actual diamonds in my rings (snob alert) than at photos.
What I did get to see is the wonderful view overlooking the city from the panorama deck of the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS). Whew. Had to google that one coz the spelling’s rather hard. The MAS has ten floors, with one dedicated to dining and the rest to various exhibits and collections. For museum fanatics, you all know that visiting a museum takes hours, days, even months so no, our group didn’t linger at any of the exhibit halls. And frankly, had I toured the entire building, I wouldn’t have had any energy left for the city tour later on.

The MAS, with its bright brick-red walls providing a stark contrast against the sky, sits at the docks of Antwerp.

Even via escalator, it took me some time to reach the top, not to mention overcome my fear of heights – I had to wait for crowds to gather at the elevators before I could hop on since I didn’t want to ride alone. What if I fall and plunge directly to the ground? If there were other people, one of them might at least grab me or halt my fall, right? 😀
But the view made up for my efforts. I’ve always loved being able to look down on stuff, that sort of feeling like you’re flying.

I think I took this shot behind the glass walls (they had small holes for taking photos but I couldn’t wait for my turn so…)

Our next stop was the Het Steen, an old stone castle standing on the banks of the Scheldt river which is also Antwerp’s oldest building. The original fortress was built sometime in 693 but it was destroyed by the Vikings and only restored in the early 16th century. I’m not too sure if any of the original structure remains. According to a legend about the city, a giant named Druoon Antigoon lived in this castle and any ship passing through the river had to pay toll to him, or risk getting their hands cut off and thrown into the Scheldt.

The Het Steen from across the street
From the Het Steen, we took a short walk to get to the center of the city and one of our first stops was this building which was used as a trading house in the middle ages. That tower signified that this was a very important building as special taxes (or whatever fee they called it) had to be paid to have this thing on your house/building. It lets the owner to see what ships had docked in the ports and thus, allows him first dibs on what is to be traded that day.

After that, it was one magnificent old building after the other. I just took note of the ones that looked really nice to me as there was no way I could remember all of them.

The Het Stadhuis of Antwerpen, or City Hall, built in the middle of the 16th century, of mixed Italian and Flemish designs.

The center alcove has an image of the Madonna, the patron of the city, and in the alcoves beneath her are representations of Wisdom and Justice.
Beautiful guild halls at the Grote Markt (Market Square or Plaza – each city has one so don’t be surprised to see this term everywhere)
Picturesque side-street off the Grote Markt

Practically every street corner has an image of Mary, being patron of the city. This is one of the most beautiful around the square.
The great Flemish master Peter Paul Ruben’s house (plus an old zoo established back in 1843) was not part of our itinerary but luckily, the highlight of our trip was the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal or the Cathedral of Our Lady (pardon my Dutch – I am literally copying the Dutch names off google), where four of his most famous works are permanently on display.
The structure itself is not that old, “just” mid-14th century and built where an old chapel had stood in the same spot from the 9th to the 12th centuries and then an old church in the 13th century, compared to other churches in Europe. But it does have a grand setting. It almost felt like a museum, and rightly so – the Museum of Fine Arts left some of its painting/sculpture collection in the side chapels of the cathedral for an exhibit that should have ended back in 2009. So aside from the paintings that are part of the cathedral, you get to see other art from the 16th century as well.
 

Ok, one of the spires from a nearby tower photobombed my photo of the Cathedral, built in the Brabant gothic style. It is (or used to be) the largest Gothic church in the Netherlands (before various political upheavals happened and Antwerp, well, I guess ended up with Belgium?) and has the highest tower in the Benelux region (Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg). It was supposed to have two towers but after a fire in the early 16th century, all funds were diverted to its repair and plans for the 2nd tower were eventually scrapped.

Ornate doors
Wait till you see a close up of the altar…

a silver antepedium made by the silversmith Jan Pieter Antoon Verschuylen in the mid-19th century, portraying the birth of Mary
One of the four Rubens in the Cathedral, the Assumption of the Virgin, an oil painting that adorns the altar, 1825-1826. The only one of the three permanent Rubens paintings in the cathedral that was not stolen by Napoleon and brought to France (although the other two were later returned).
I just love old churches because past Catholics have always been generous and proof of this generosity are the grand churches from the middle ages (for a more local flavor, look at the 15th-16th century churches we have in the Philippines – the San Agustin in Intramuros, the various ones in Ilocos and Bohol which you can also read about in my blog). No expenses spared!

Confessionals made of oak, and each cubicle is separate by a carved statue of one of the 12 apostles or 12 women representing various virtues, circa 1700. Not sure if these are still in use though.
A very ornate oak pulpit, 1737, by MIchiel van der Voort
Devotional statue of Mary with Jesus on her arm, around 16th century, on the left side of the Cathedral
Practically every inch of the Cathedral is an artwok in itself, and not even the cupola (domed ceiling) was spared. From this perspective, it looked as if it was opening up to heaven (funny because that was also what it said on the tourist guide, hahaha!).

Assumption of the Virgin by Cornelis Schut, 1647
An old retable depicting the life of St. Joseph, late 19th century. I think this is the only retable I have come across so far in Europe.
The gilt wooden tabernacle in the Sacrament chapel on the right side of the cathedral, shaped like the Ark of the Covenant – you know, the where Moses kept the tablets of the commandments and which disappeared without a trace? It was designed by Hendrik Frans Verbrugghen in 1710.

Let’s move on to the rest of the Rubens paintings (before you get tired of all the artwork I am showing), shall we? 
The Raising of the Cross
This triptych (an artwork divided into three panels) of the Raising of the Cross was done by Rubens around 1609-1610, and was originally part of the altar of the St. Walburgis Church. It was one of two paintings taken from the Cathedral by the French but returned in 1815. It hangs on the left side (right of the altar).
The Descent From the Cross
This one, painted 1611-1614, shows eight people lowering Christ from the cross after his death. You can see Mary with her outstretched hands and John in the striking red robes.
Both triptychs and the Assumption of Mary have reversed panels depicting various events but these are not visible. 
I missed taking a photo of the fourth Rubens masterpiece in the Cathedral, a triptych depicting the Resurrection of Christ, so I just grabbed this one from the official website:

For those of you who haven’t read or seen the Dog of Flanders (the book or the anime shown back in the mid-90s in Japan and the Philippines; it had various adaptations as well, both in film and other anime), the Cathedral figured prominently in the novel, where Nello and Patrasche tragically died of hunger and cold one winter night, underneath Ruben’s Raising of the Cross. Rubens was Nello’s idol and being an aspiring artist himself, the boy had wanted to see the paintings inside the Cathedral but didn’t have money to enter. 
Anyhow, the story was so popular in Japan (but not in Belgium, the story being of English origin) that Toyota donated this marker located outside the Cathedral. A statue of Nello and Patrasche stands in the suburb of Hoboken, Antwerp.

Okay, I’m a sucker for anything made of lace (as you can probably tell by the number of lace items in my wardrobe, and indeed my good old wedding gown) so I was really looking to buy the famed lace of Belgium. Antwerp being one of my last city tours, I decided to shop around the city square (and on a side note, I haven’t had a lot of luck in the shopping department coz they all close at 6PM – which I could never beat since I always get back from the touristy things past 8PM).
Fortunately, there’s a lace store a few steps from the Cathedral.

I so wanted to buy this doll – so pretty. But then, I never liked dolls.
A funny thing happened to me in this shop. You see, I’ve been reading tips from tourist websites and they said to ask the proprietors if the lace sold are made in Belgium since some are clearly marked as made elsewhere and when I politely asked the lady at the counter where the laces are made, she said, “They are proudly made here in Belgium. Not made in China that’s why they’re expensive.” I didn’t even mention China! Hahaha! So I ended up buying a couple of pillowcases from her. The shop even sold antique lace (circa 18th century) enclosed in silver lockets but they were oh so expensive – the cheapest one I saw was 90 euros! And the lace wasn’t even bigger than a one-peso coin. 😦

Still pending are my blog posts of our trip to Ghent, Mechelen, Bruges, Brussels and Paris so stay tuned!

A Summer Day in Amsterdam

It was a very long drive to Amsterdam from Brussels – 250 miles in three hours or so but it was so scenic so I didn’t get bored at all. The two boys slept through it though so they missed all the windmills, the green fields with lots of cows and cottages, and the various bridges and rivers. Our guide even told us we were very lucky to see flower fields along the highway this time of the year – apparently, it’s too early for the flowers to bloom (I chalk it up to Mother Nature making sure we have the best European holiday).
One of the first signs we were in the Netherlands? This:
Not the prettiest windmill we saw, but I heard the guide say this is the oldest (17th century) and this was the only one on my side of the road so pardon the shot – I had to take this from inside a moving bus, seated on an aisle seat. There are more scenic windmill locations but they are far from the city,
Our first stop was this family-owned cheese factory (or farm?) where the nice lady of the house demonstrated cheese-making. It’s a very tedious process, apparently, involving cutting the cow’s milk until only the solid parts are left, or about 10% of the total milk you started with and putting flavors on it. Unfortunately for us, she didn’t share the secret ingredients of their cheese: you’d have to marry her if you want to find out. But I did learn something new from her – that cheese, like wine, gets better with age. No wonder they go so well together! The oldest cheese they have in their farm is almost 40 years old!

Wooden clogs they use in the farm – I do not need to tell you how heavy these are. I can’t even figure out how they can walk, let alone do manual labor using these things. The only difference of the clogs above to the ones actually used is that work ones aren’t varnished and don’t have designs on them, just names of the owners.
Baby clogs!!!
After the tour, we were led to the gift shop (but of course!), where the first order of the day was free cheese sampling. Four plates of cheese were laid out for us. I only got to taste two – the pepper and the smoked cheese ones. The latter blew my taste buds away. Oh. So. Good. It simply tasted perfect, not to musty or thick, or sour, and melted in my mouth. I wanted to queue up again just to get another free taste. 
But since I was too shy, I just hoarded. I grabbed so many of it one of the owners told me the 11th bar was free. Hahaha! (and you can probably guess what a nightmare it was come luggage packing time as those bars weren’t the only ones I managed to hoard).

Manong asked where we were from and surprised us by exclaiming: “Queso de Bola!” Most of the queso de bolas we have in the country apparently come from theirs, and their farm is one of the major sources.
I went crazy over the souvenirs – too bad most of them were either breakable or too heavy:

Those fat-sausage like things at the bottom right are the smoked cheese I was raving about (and spent thousands on, now that I’m converting euros to pesos). Not sure if we have this particular brand in the Philippines though, but do let me know.

After that, we went into the city itself and hopped on the cruise. Quite expensive at 15 euros per person, and not really recommended as there isn’t much to see from this POV than from walking. And it was unbelievably hot – this, coming from someone living in a tropical country. Such a change from the cold summer in France and Belgium (where the temperature ranged from 13 C to 23 C when we were there earlier). I thought it was going to be a cold day that I wore a long sleeved-lace blouse under my corduroy dress that I was a grumpy tourist before the cruise was over (you all know how I transform to a monster when it’s hot).

This is one of the better views of the canals, but not from the cruise – we were just walking when we came across a lovely bridge underneath which a flock of birds were idly swimming.
floating Chinese restaurant
One curious thing you will come across during the cruise are quaint little boat houses. A couple of decades ago, there was a shortage of houses/land in the country so people were allowed to build houses on boats. We saw very distinct boathouses – some even had gardens on their roof and hammocks out back. Some were obviously very expensive, with multiple levels like a ship, while some were very simple ones made of planks of wood, like an overgrown barge.
One of the many boat houses – I think this one is made of concrete

A copy of the Pont Alexandre bridge in Paris

Birds freely mingle with the crowds – you can even feed pigeons in the city square, or just watch them swim in the canals or fly overhead
There are some more strange sights you will find in Amsterdam, such as the forward-tilt of the houses in the city. Our guide said this was so that when they pull their stuff through the pulleys, they won’t hit the facade of the houses. Plus, they make houses look bigger. 
So, no, my photos aren’t slanted and your vision isn’t playing tricks on you.  
Oh, and those pulleys (or hooks) you see at the top of the houses? Those are used to pull heavy/big furniture up into the houses. You see, houses are so narrow (the country has limited land, and most of it is only reclaimed which is why when you think of Netherlands, one of the first things you’ll probably associate are dikes, of which they are expert builders) that they can’t have wide staircases or elevators. Being a resourceful bunch, they came up with the clever idea of installing pulleys instead.

Slanted houses with pulleys

That’s the old post office turned shopping mall in the distance. It’s what I would call a sad mall, if it was here in the Philippines – so small, I think it only has 30 shops or so.
Oh, and some other stuff you don’t get to see everyday: live porn, public smoking of marijuana and a hemp museum or two.

Live porn show and strip tease as you pass by shops in the red light district, even in high noon:
Prostitution is legal here – didn’t go in though. Hahaha! 😛
free hugs (and even kisses) in the square – do you spy the large balloon shaped like a penis? 😛
 Everything hemp-related:

Hemp mat, hemp shampoo, hemp everything! Marijuana is legal here!
As we were walking around, I could smell a tobacco-like scent in the air, although fainter, and sweeter and not at all irritating like cigarette smoke – it was only later that our friend told me “that’s marijuana you’re inhaling.” 
Hahaha, so I guess I smoked marijuana without even knowing it. Crazy.
Before going back to meet up with our group, we went to a cheese store and what do we see? Our very own quezo de bola, right there on the shelves:

 
We didn’t get to see Anne Frank’s house (we stayed too long at McDonald’s for the free wifi) or Van Gogh, which is too bad as I don’t think those are enough reasons for us to make a second trip to this city, lovely as it is. I would have skipped lunch for it though but I got outvoted by the hubby. Hahaha!

Happy 32nd to me!!!

I am indeed very lucky to be spending and celebrating my birthday out of the country for the second time in a row. Last year was definitely planned, but this year – not so much. My birthday just fell on the dates we were to go to Europe. Yipee!!! 

Anyway, I thought I had a pretty good 2012 but 2013 is turning out to be even better. 

First off, I’m going to be a mom for the second time! It was quite unplanned. I was too worried there would be much to do at work this year and that I wouldn’t be able to devote time and energy to a baby, but God had other plans. I’ve been having a couple of hiccups every now and then relating this pregnancy, mostly relating to my health as I am generally not a very healthy person and my habits of late have worsened everything (sleeping less than five hours, working late, not eating enough and on time – triggered all my allergies and my thyroid problems) but hopefully, all the meds I’m taking should take care of it. And I am getting excited seeing my new bundle of joy later this year (as timing would have it, I am guaranteed a Christmas vacation because of the baby, for the first time in 11 years!!!).
Yellow flowers at the back of the Notre Dame in Paris
Second, well, I was able to finally visit Europe! Just three countries/six cities as we had limited time (not to mention, resources! Hahaha!) but everything was so beautiful.

Late lunch at Le Procope, the oldest cafe in the world. Located in the Latin Quarter in Paris.

Got to try escargots at a traditional French restaurant for my birthday dinner.

Had roasted lamb for dinner.
Lit candles for my two little angels at the cathedral in Brussels.

So I guess I get to cross a few more things off my bucket list. I really have a lot to be thankful for and I feel so blessed. Here’s to the next 32 years!