Tuesday, May 24, 2011

If its Tuesday, it must be Belgium!

Did you ever see this film from the 1960's staring Suzanne Pleshette?  It's about a group of American tourists trying to see Europe in 12 days. Gertrud and I are now in Brussels, the last of 7 stops on my European business trip,  and I feel we should be characters in this movie. 

I don't have much to say about Brussels even though it is often referred to as the Capital of Europe due to its status as the seat of the European Union.  As a tourist destination, it can't begin to compare with Paris, Madrid, Rome, Prague or Berlin. However it can certainly compete in the culinary sphere and in my opinion has some of the best restauruants in all of Europe.  Its seafood is especially good and it has better options for French food than one can readily find in Paris.

Belgium's top tourism destination is the ancient trading city of Bruges(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruges) which we visited over the past weekend.  As a canal city, we prefer it to Amsterdam because it is much less crowded and the bicycles are much less threatening.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Unrest at Madrid's Puerta del Sol

Well it appears we made it out of Spain in the nick of time.  We just spend a week in Madrid and could feel the pressure building in the city's plazas for some major demonstrations just before this weekends Spanish elections. Currently Spain has a 21 percent unemployment rate, with 40 percent among the youth. This could be a recipe for serious violence in the coming days and weeks.

But we won't let this detract from our overall wonderful week and we have decided that Madrid is now one of our favorite cities. It is clean, has good weather, an excellent transportation system, great restaurants and cafes, beautiful plazas and elegant shops.  And there are lots of stimulating things to see and do in the city and in the region. For starters there are its two world famous art museums -- the Prado  (http://www.museodelprado.es/en) and the Thyssen-Bornemesza  (http://www.museothyssen.org/en/thyssen/home) which were open in the evenings (thank goodness, since I had to work during the day).

On the weekend we immersed ourselves in Spainish history and culture by visiting El Escorial (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Escorial), Segovia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Segovia), Avila (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ávila,_Spain) and

The highlight for me was Segovia with an impressive 2000 year old aqueduct crossing through the city center, a Moorish alcazar, parts of which are said to have been copied in the castle at Disneyworld, and an imposing cathedral which towers above the city. 

Alkazar of Segovia

Segovia Cathederal

Aqueduct of Segovia

The principal attraction of Avila is the ancient wall that completely surrounds the old city.

City Wall of Avila
A visit to Toledo is essential to an understanding of Isabella and Ferdinand and their honored place in Spanish history.  From a purely Spanish and Catholic point-of-view they were the force that united modern Spain under Catholicism and for which Isabella was granted sainthood.


They were also the ones who financed Colombus' voyage to America but who also carried out the Inquisition and drove the Moors (North African Muslims) and the Jews out of Spain with a commensurate loss of lives.  Here are a few links on Isabella and Ferdinand and on Spanish history for anyone who may be interested.

The past two weeks in Iberia have been extremely educational and nicely suplemented trips we had previous made to Andalusia and Catalonia.  But it would take many more visits to this peninsula to really understand the great impact that its people have had on the history of the world.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

5 days in Lisbon

Lisbon isn't Paris but it does have some interesting tourist and culture attractions. The best known are the UNESCO world heritage sites of St. Jeronomo Monastery where Vasco de Gama is buried, and Belem Tower, a monument to Portugal's maritime history which stems from the 16th Century.

The inner city suffers from urban blight during the day and badly needs renewal. However the bars, nightclubs and restaurants come alive at night with the primary draw being Fado, the Portuguese version of the blues which developed in Lisbon's poor neighborhoods. We had dinner one evening while being entertained by fado singers  We like it ok but a little goes a long way when you don't understand Portuguese. Ironically, Gertrud and I first heard fado about 5 years ago at an outdoor international folk festival in Salt Lake.  The singer was a tall blond named Maritza who had a stunning stage presence and who it turns out is one of the biggest name in fado and known throughout Portugal.  Here is a youtube link with Maritza singing fado. 

On Saturday we visited several towns outside Lisbon including Sintra where the royal family spent its summers when it ruled Portugal.  Sintra Palace is the first palace I've seen with chimneys as the dominant feature. 

We especially enjoyed Cabo da Roca, the most Westerly point in Europe which is covered with some of the most beautiful wild flowers we have ever seen.  We also visited the elegant beach resort of Cascais and the spa of Estoril.  All of these places are within an hour of Lisbon and serve as bedroom communities for businessmen and officials who work in the city. 

On Tuesday, while I was working, Gertrud took a tour (no, not a pilgrimage) to Fatima, one of the most visited Catholic pilgrimage sites for the worship of Mary.  I took the same trip 5 years ago and was quite amazed by the devotion. The tour bus also make stops in the medieval seaside village of Obidos, in the fishing village of Nazare and the Batalha Monastery. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

Paris in the Springtime

This afternoon Gertrud and I will be departing Paris after a most wonderful week.  We have been here several times before but have never enjoyed it as much, probably because we didn't feel the pressure to see everything on this trip. Instead we took the time to relax (me, after the end of my work day) and to savor the city's ambiance and joie de vivre.  Paris in the Springtime has been a theme of writers, poets, painters and musicians for centuries, and with the flowers and trees now in bloom and the sidewalk cafes and restaurants full, we have certainly been inspired too.

Gertrud in a Paris cafe

Much of our enjoyment can be attributed to the location of the lovely boutique hotel we stayed in on Rue du Mont Thabor which is only short walks away from Place Vendome, the Opera, Place de la Concorde, the Champs Elysees, Place de la Madeleine, the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Orsay Palace, etc. On one warm evening we even walked to a restaurant near the Eiffel Tower for dinner which was only 45 minutes away.

Lobby of our hotel - Renaissance Place Vendome

On Saturday we saw Paris from the top of a double-decker bus, and on our only excursion outside Paris, we took a half-day tour to Giverny in Normandy to see Claude Monet's home and the gardens which provided the themes for many of his famous impressionist paintings. The gardens were as beautiful as we had expected http://giverny.org/gardens/fcm/visitgb.htm.

Monet's Garden
Monet's Garden

Note to our French friend, Joelle:  yes, we now agree with you that Paris is the world's most beautiful city, especially in the Spring.