Monthly Archives: May 2010

BRUGES, BELGIUM – finding an oasis in an oasis

There are still a few corners of Bruges like this...

Bruges (officially ‘Brugge’ in Flemish) is reputed to be a quiet, olde worldy mediaeval place, where people can step back in time to an era when life was slow and strawberries were small and tasted like strawberries.

...but a lot of it is like this...

...or like this.

Millions of visitors can’t be wrong. Bruges is beautifully preserved, and there are spectacular old buildings around every corner. Come to think of it, the corners themselves are made of spectacular old buildings.

This is the oldest hospital in Europe. Never mind the leeches and the blood-letting – the brickwork alone should make you feel better!

St Jan's Hospital is now a museum.

Fortunately there is a place where we can escape the chocolate and lace shops, the clip-clop of horse-drawn carts, the amplified commentary of the tour boats, the I Love Bruges and 50 Great Beers t-shirts.

Elizabeth Beguinage, Bruges


The Elizabeth Begijnhof attracts only the devout few. I’m one.

And Belgian strawberries look like strawberries, smell like strawberries and by golly they still taste like strawberries too.

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AKAROA – where Nouvelle Zélande is almost French


You’d hardly see more French flags per square metre in Paris on Bastille Day. In Rue Lavaud, Rue Jolie, and Rue Balguerie the B&Bs, motels and hostels have names like La Belle Villa, La Rochelle and Chez le Mer Backpackers. The butcher is a ‘boucherie’, the service station sells ‘essence’ (petrol) and the cafes serve ‘café’.

I’m not in France, Belgium or Quebec. This is Akaroa, a village 80km south of Christchurch, on the Banks Peninsula or, as it proudly calls itself, “the Riviera of Canterbury”.

But for a small historical accident, the whole of New Zealand’s South Island could have been dotted with French towns, and this part of the country is playing up its French-ness for all it’s worth. Mon Dieu! They’ve even bussed in a party of British tourists to make the place seem authentically continental.

The Banks Peninsula has plenty of other things going for it before it starts beating the tambour francais (French drum). It’s geographically spectacular for a start. Ancient volcanic explosions left a major crater that is now lovely Akaroa Harbour, and lava flows formed steep spurs down to beautiful secluded bays all around the edges.

Akaroa Harbour


Fishing trawlers and pleasure craft bob in the sage green water of French Bay, the rolling hills form a pleasant backdrop and the rocky cliffs on the eastern shore add some drama.

It’s quiet enough in the off-season, but it must really boom in the summer holidays. Attractive yachts offer the ‘Sail Akaroa Experience’. Tours take visitors out of the bay to fish or to swim with Hector’s dolphins, the smallest and rarest variety of that creature.

St Patrick's Church, Akaroa

The information office provided me with a self-guided audio tour of the town. La Marseillaise (what else?) introduced each stop. I promenaded along the foreshore, admiring the almost-too-cute-to-be-true wooden houses and churches, and listening to the town’s story.

Captain James Cook, normally so meticulous with his mapping, had an off day here in 1769. He failed to circumnavigate what he mistook for an island, quickly named it after Sir Joseph Banks, and sailed on to Botany Bay.

There followed a tragic period of exterminations as first the seals, then the whales, the trees and finally the local Maori were ruthlessly exploited. In 1838, French whaling captain Jean Langlois ‘bought’ the peninsula from Maori people. It may seem surprising that they wanted to offload prime real estate with sweeping water views, presumably in return for axes and muskets, but probably they and M. Langlois had different concepts of what land sale meant.

Langlois returned to France to bring back 63 settlers to colonise his new beachfront property. The British were having none of that so they sent a warship to nip into Akaroa, raise the flag and claim the land for England. A hastily assembled court ruled that nobody but the British crown was allowed to rip off indigenous people, so Langlois was effectively gazumped.

The French, no doubt bitterly disappointed, nevertheless gave Gallic shrugs, struggled ashore and formed their colony under British law. Visitors these days can be very pleased about that.

If the standard of local cuisine took any dip after the British invasion, it’s back with a vengeance now. Little Akaroa has more cafes and restaurants per head of population than anywhere else in the country and prides itself on its gastronomy. C’est la Vie cafe had such an excellent reputation that I couldn’t get in, but there were plenty of alternatives.

On the terrace outside l’Hotel, my young waiter’s t-shirt wished me ‘Bon appetit’, but he didn’t seem very French. Not surly or superior enough perhaps, and when I ordered a flounder fresh from the Akaroa Harbour, he replied with a cheery ‘Sweet as. Inny problems, just guv us a yill.’ There were no problems. The flounder was ‘tres bon’ (very good), and the glass of local ‘chardonnay’ (chardonnay) even better.

Next day I took a drive over the spectacular summit road to the bays on the other side – it wasn’t always easy going. The sign warned that the road was unsuitable for towing or campervans. Would my ageing rental car cope? It strained to reach 25kph and my knuckles turned white on the steering wheel as I negotiated a narrow bumpy road with few safety barriers and disconcerting drops below me.

Little remains of the forest that formerly covered the peninsula, but there was still plenty of nature to enjoy. There were rocky outcrops on every peak, and vistas to the bays below, whenever I dared to flick my eyes off the road to enjoy them. An eagle swooped on a rabbit. Endangered yellowhead birds flitted across my path, but fortunately I was driving so slowly I wasn’t endangering anyone but myself.

French Farm Winery

Across the water from Akaroa a sign pointed to the French Farm and Winery. It sounded like the perfect spot for an ‘au revoir dejeuner’ (see you later lunch). It looked perfect too, with lavender hedges by a French provincial-style building with heavy wooden doors and vaulted ceilings. The cuisine was of French provincial quality as well. My excellent salmon was caught in the bay and the vegetables locally grown.

As I downed the last drops of my sauvignon blanc, I noticed a family next to me, having a little trouble reading the menu and making themselves understood by the Kiwi waitress.

‘Sacre bleu! (Heavens!)’ I thought, ‘They’re really French! Are they perhaps descendants of Jean Langlois?’ No, they turned out to be tourists, and very happy ones. They admired the décor, they enjoyed the food, and they took a photo of the fromage (cheese) platter.

So how did genuine French people find the Banks Peninsula experience? I asked. ‘Formidable! (Sweet as!)’ they said.

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there:

Akaroa French Connection runs shuttle services from Christchurch to Akaroa from NZ$20 ($16) return. http://www.akaroabus.co.nz

Staying there: http://www.akaroa.com lists numerous accommodation and dining options.

Further information: Audio walking tour from the Visitor Information Centre costs NZ$10. Entry to the Akaroa Museum costs NZ$4.

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KROLLER-MULLER MUSEUM – the greatest private art collection of the 1920s

In the early part of the 20th century the fabulously wealthy Helene Kroller-Muller and husband Anton assembled the world’s greatest private collection of art, including over two hundred works by Vincent van Gogh. They are now displayed in the Kroller-Muller Museum in the central Netherlands near Arnhem, surrounded by the Hoge Veluwe National Park, formerly the family’s private nature reserve.

The magnificent sculpture garden is a highlight.

You may have to do a bit of work to get there...

...but once you arrive you can relax...

...take a few snaps...

...no hurry, they're happy to pose for you...

...admire the green...

...enjoy the peace and quiet...

...consider the heavens...

...beautiful!

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TRIER, GERMANY – eating really old Roman food

I used to know the Latin for, inter alia, ‘The Roman army marched over the hill and conquered the Gauls,’ but such topics seldom came up in conversation, so I forgot most of that language. Now I’ve just used my high school Latin to order a meal, and can proudly report that I passed the test, cum laude.

I’ve been dining in Zum Domstein restaurant in Trier, which claims to be Germany’s oldest town, and is particularly proud of its Roman heritage. The restaurant’s menu is taken from a 2000-year-old recipe book by Marcus Gavius Apicius, the Jamie Oliver of his day. Excellent fare was on offer, in Zum Domstein and in Trier itself, and I can now give you, pro bono, my assessments of both.

Aperitif: Mulsum – white wine with spices and a dash of honey, served chilled in a terracotta beaker. Verdict – interesting, sweet but not sickly.

My foretaste of Trier was a train ride from Frankfurt, heading northwest along the Rhine, brown and choppy on a winter’s day. Steep hills on both sides of the river were covered with vineyard terraces. Fairytale castles perched on every crag, and half-timbered villages with pink and white churches clung to the riverbanks, watching barges plying back and forth in front of their windows.

At Koblenz I changed trains and headed southwest down the Moselle through more vineyards. Verdict – as above; interesting, sweet but not sickly. The Rhine leg in particular must be even lovelier when the vines are in leaf.

Gustationes (entrees):
Tisana – hearty barley soup, with a squeeze of lemon, garnished with dill.
Lucanicae cum fabiacie virides – warm sausages of pine nuts, accompanied by green beans in fish sauce.
Cardui – artichoke hearts, drizzled with creamy vinaigrette.
Verdict: Splendid variety here. Most promising.

Porta Nigra

Trier introduced itself to me via a handsome avenue leading from the station to the Porta Nigra, entrance to the Altstadt (old town). The Porta Nigra was once the most impressive city entrance in Europe, and it’s still up there, four stories high, black, ugly and big enough to drive several chariots through. A town needs to be important before it gets a gate like this, and Trier was indeed once enormously significant. This was looking good.

Clutching a walking map provided by Trier Information Centre, I headed into the Hauptmarkt, as colourful and charming as any market square in Germany, and although shops and cafes were unashamedly modern, the McDonalds and Subway signs were restrained enough not to spoil the appeal.

A 16th century statue of St Peter stared down at us from a tall fountain, and peeping over the buildings were the towers of neighbouring churches. The spire of St Gangolf’s was cute enough to remind me of the Disney logo, but it can hardly be blamed for that. The tower was built in the 16th century, before the invention of kitsch. My guidebook offered me ad hoc viewings of palaces, cathedrals, gardens and a toy museum. Verdict – ditto; splendid variety here, very promising.

Mensa Prima (first course) – Perna cum caricis – ham slices with a sweet brown sauce of figs, flavoured with myrtle leaf.
Verdict – a little tough and dry in parts, but with a fascinating flavour.

Constantine Basilica

The main dish for visitors to Trier is Roman history. Chartered by Caesar Augustus in 16BC, Trier came of age in 393 anno domini, when Emperor Constantine made the town his HQ. He built Trier to a size and grandeur rivalling Rome’s and erected UNESCO World Heritage Sites all over the place.

The Rheinische Landesmuseum (Municipal Museum) gave me a brief English rundown of the town’s history and displayed the statuary, mosaic tiles, household paraphernalia et cetera, that apparently still get unearthed whenever anyone sticks a spade into Trier. Thousands of coins have been retrieved from the Moselle mud under the Roman Bridge, since it was the custom to throw a coin into the river when leaving town.

On the walls in the massive Konstantin Basilika, the largest surviving single room from the ancient world, I read the curriculum vitae of Constantine the Great. Depending on your interpretation, he was either the saint who spread Christianity through Europe, or a cynical opportunist, pragmatically tolerating a new religion in order to bring harmony to his empire.

Under Constantine, Trier became a city of over 40,000 people, with an amphitheatre seating 25,000, and huge bathhouses for washing gladiators and crowds after the fun. The ruins are open to the public and in the warmer months, Roman shows, in German, are staged in the amphitheatre.

Verdict: Yes, the history is fascinating and important, but some of the presentation is a little tough and dry.

Roman Baths

Mensa secunda (second course)
Patina de piris –soufflé of pears, topped with custard and peppercorns.
Verdict: Surprising and spicy.

For dessert, Trier had an unexpected treat for me. Karl Marx was born in the Bruckenstrasse in 1818, and lived in Trier until he was seventeen. The old house is now a museum. In eras when Marx was persona non grata, memorabilia from his life here were destroyed, so there’s nothing to show how the family lived. However, my audio guide gave a detailed account of Marx’s life, work and influence. I shared my visit with a group of Chinese gentlemen, queuing to take photos of each other next to the celebrated bust. Verdict: See ‘patina de piris’ above.

Summary: Those Romans must certainly have tasted the dolce vita, and a visit to Trier is highly recommended. Do it soon. Carpe diem!

TRIP NOTES:

GETTING THERE: The fast ICE train from Frankfurt to Trier costs EUR50 for a reserved second-class seat on the three-hour trip via Koblenz.

STAYING THERE: Hotel-Restaurant Constantin has single rooms from EUR44 per night http://www.hotel-constantin.de

EATING THERE: Restaurant Zum Domstein is in the Hauptmarkt. http://www.domstein.de

FURTHER INFORMATION: Walking tour map of Trier costs EUR2.90 at the visitor information centre. Combined entry to the Porta Nigra, amphitheatre and baths is EUR6.20. Rheinische Landesmuseum entry is EUR5. Karl Marx Haus entry costs EUR3. See also http://www.trier.de

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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ZIMBABWEAN ART IN NEDERLAND

We were riding the bikes through Gelderland this week. It is beautiful countryside and the Hoge Veluwe is a highlight – the Netherlands’ biggest national park.

Suddenly we came across this…
Surrounded by Dutch landscape there’s a farm, with camping facilities, a superb exhibition of African sculpture and a workshop where visitors can learn stone carving from Zimbabwean artists.

The African carvings on display may be deceptively simple, traditional and folksy, but they are beautifully executed, and looked absolutely brilliant when set against a background of Dutch fields and forests.

Naturally when you’re on a cycling trip the last thing you need is a large lump of stone to put in your saddlebag, however beautiful it may be, but we couldn’t resist buying a small souvenir to take home.

Congratulations, Quadenoord Farm, this is a brilliant enterprise and a delightful surprise for us and anybody else who happens to be passing!

http://www.quadenoord.nl/

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THE BRILLIANT DUTCH CYCLE NETWORK – Amsterdam to Laren

With signage like this, who could get lost?

Mevrouw Tulloch loves Art Nouveau furniture. I like bike riding. After a short but spirited discussion, we agree to spend a Sunday riding the bikes from Amsterdam to the village of Laren, where more Art Nouveau chairs than you can shake a stick at are on display in the Singer Museum.

It’s a few hours ride away, so we have to find a good bike route to get there. I don’t have a GPS or even a computer on the bike. I’m past caring about my maximum heart rate.

Finding a Dutch cycle route is easy. I get on the net and go to a Dutch ‘bike route planner’ website. [NOTE: There are a few of these - google 'fietsrouteplanner'.] I’m able to type in our location (Sloterkade Amsterdam) at one end, and ‘Singer Museum, Laren’ at the other. Up pops a map with the suggested door to door cycle route, distance (a modest 37.9km), estimated time (a comfortable 2 hours 6 minutes), calories needed (724 – how many are in a bowl of muesli and a slice of toast?) and noting our interest in art, it even suggests a couple of other museums we may find worth seeing along the way.

There are detailed instructions (in Dutch, I’m afraid) about turning left, diagonally right and going straight ahead, but for those who find Dutch a challenging language there’s a list of numbers in friendly green circles – 52, 55, 59, 15, 78, 79, 80… These I note down on a scrap of paper. Then we get on the bikes and set off – on the cycle paths of course – in Holland riding between those slow cumbersome motor vehicles is considered unnecessarily annoying and something to be avoided at all costs.

Number 52 is the point in Amsterdam, pictured above. It’s a ‘knooppunt’ (knot point), one of which we’ll be passing every few kilometres. Notice above my bike there’s a map with a ‘you are here’ and directions to knooppunt 55, the next one we need to find on our way to our destination, knooppunt 80 by Laren.

As if we needed any more directions, those signs above list towns we could visit. ‘Muiden’ happens to be our next one.

The cycle path looks like this...


Following the fietsnetwerk (bike network) route from knooppunt to knooppunt is easy and we roll along from 55, 59…to 80 where those Art Nouveau chairs are waiting. The Singer Museum won’t let us sit on them, but they do offer comfortable alternatives.

I won’t pretend that we did the route in less than the estimated two hours and six minutes, because we stopped to admire the villages of Muiden (lock and castle) and Naarden (old fortified town with moat), and we road tested the local chocolademelk and appeltaart.

Needless to say, the bike network chooses routes through the more attractive parts of the country. Canals, powerlines and motorways are nearly always in sight, but so too are cows, sheep and swans most of the time. If there’s a choice to be made between the fast route and the scenic one, green cycling signs indicate the latter, red ones the former.

Signs at every intersection indicate the direction of the next knooppunt.


Bike path into Hilversum Station


Finally when we’ve had enough of riding and Art Nouveau (I enjoyed that too, by the way), we head for the train line. At Hilversum Station, a few kilometres from Laren, you can hire a bike, buy a bike, park a bike, or leave a bike to get repaired while you go to work. We put ours on the train (it costs 6 euros a day for a bike pass which you can then use on any train in the country). This saves us having to ride into the stiff breeze which is now blowing rather too directly from Amsterdam.

A lot of money has been invested in this cycling system. But surely it’s paid off. Recreational cycling is enormous here, no doubt with considerable public health benefits. About half the Dutch population regularly uses bikes to get to school or work, thus avoiding ripping up the roads and polluting the air with their cars. That’s what I call a civilized society!

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Filed under Art, Cycle touring, Cycling, Holland, Travel- Europe