Wednesday, September 29, 2010

the little things

I'm expecting imminent disaster. Seriously. Things have been going too perfectly. I was worried about how I would get from England to Belgium, but my train ticket from London to Brussels was fairly cheap and allowed one free transfer to any Belgian station. Score.

Brussels was a good first stop. The market square was impressive, and on the day I arrived there was some kind of festival going on and the square was hopping with all sorts of people singing, dancing, drinking, eating and taking pictures. I tried my first Belgian waffle, which quickly resulted in a second. Both smothered in chocolate. Then I tried a Belgian beer, which also necessitated additional samples. And so I quickly learned that Belgians have life pretty well figured out. Enjoy the little things.

While Brussels was nice for a night, Bruges is a dream. The best beers in the world are less than 3 euro. There's free chocolate samples at dozens of shops (I swear Bruges must have the highest number of chocolate shops per capita in the world). The architecture is straight out of a Disney movie. The weather has been great.... If you never hear from me again, you'll know why.

I spent three days in Bruges. I walked along cobble stone streets and canals by day, and medicated my weary legs at the pubs by night. I think what I liked most about Bruges was that there was literally nothing to do but eat, drink, and walk around. It was a little touristy, but since I only added to the problem I couldn't complain. To get a good feel for what Bruges is like, check out In Bruges, not a bad movie.

It was tough to leave, but I was looking forward to Ghent. I have two friends living in Ghent, Mieke and Lien, who I met in New Zealand. They were very generous in showing me around the city and letting me crash at their place for the night. They took me out to dinner, walked me around the city at night, and introduced me to a Belgian late-night delicacy: french fries with gravy and mayonnaise. It might not sound appetizing but man, it beat the hell out of salt and ketchup.

After Belgium, I took a train up to the Netherlands where I spent two nights. I was fortunate enough that my friend Sabrina was able to put me up for a night, and afterwards I toured Amsterdam. But that, as they say, is a different story all together.

One thing about Belgium and the Netherlands is that the area is completely overrun with bicycles. It's out of control. Scads of frantic peddlers descend upon the streets like biblical locusts. They recklessly whip past pedestrians with inches to spare. Walking along sidewalks sometimes feels like driving on the intersate with a vespa.

Next up is Germany, just in time for Oktoberfest. First stop is Cologne, then I'll swing through the Rhine Valley on my way to Frankfurt before my two longest stops in Munich and Berlin. Very glad to hear from some of you guys. Check back in next week....

Thursday, September 23, 2010

london calling

London. The bookend of my trip. An inconvenient place to start, really, since travel to and from the UK isn't covered by my Eurail Pass (or cheap). But this is where I know the most people and I've been lucky enough to stay with my friends Mindy and Jay.

Getting to their place from the train station remains the biggest challenge of the trip so far. I forgot to print out a Google map before I left and had to rely on public city maps and support from locals. Neither were all that helpful. The street I was looking for, Sandwich Street, wasn't really a street but one of a million tiny alleys in London. I even approached an elderly couple who claimed to be lifelong neighborhood locals and they never heard of the place. The old woman squinted up at me and repeated what she had heard with trepidation, "The... Sandwich House... on... Sandwich Street?" She turned to her husband, who shrugged, and looked back at me as if I were trying to sell her magic beans. "Is this some sort of joke, love?" I don't know what she thought I might do. There aren't too many punchlines I can think of, but the British are terribly wary of being embarrassed. Maybe she thought any sort of response would trigger me to pull a foot-long grinder out of my backpack, whack her across the jaw with it, and yell, "You just got SANDWICH HOUSED!!!" I don't know. I think it would have to really be toasted well to be effective.

Anyway, I made it. I stayed at Mindy and Jay's flat for four nights. They had just moved from Portsmouth a couple weeks ago, so I slept on the floor among empty suitcases and unpacked coats. It was perfect. I felt bad intruding for so long, but I was out walking around the majority of the time. I didn't want to waste money on public transportation since I had enough time to see all the tourist attractions, so I took to London on foot. After three full days, my legs are singing....

On the first day I walked through Regent's Park, Hyde Park, SoHo, Piccadilly Circus, and The Mall, and saw Royal Albert Hall, The Albert Memorial, and Buckingham Palace. Day Two was Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Covent Gardens, The National Gallery, and Trafalgar Square. On my last full day I spent five hours in the British Museum, then walked along the Thames for a few miles, crossed the Tower Bridge as it was getting dark, and on the way back I passed by St. Paul's Cathedral, The Bank of England, and The London Tower.

A trip highlight was on Friday. On my way back from the National Gallery I saw dozens of policemen (in their funny tophats and reflector vests) closing down city streets and setting up metal barricades. Turns out the Pope was in town. Probably stopping by for fish and chips and a warm beer, maybe saying a prayer or two.

So I hung around Westminster Abbey for a couple hours waiting for the Popemobile to roll in. The Popemobile, I soon discovered, is nothing more than a European SUV with a glass, bazooka-proof shower stall attached to the back. Only the Pope and his select entourage are privilidged to ride in there. I have to imagine that farting in the back of the Popemobile must be seriously frowned upon. Can you imagine letting one rip in front of the pope while you're sitting in a tiny air-tight cubicle? The remainder of the unpleasant trip will most likely be your last ride with the Pope, bazookas be damned. Excommunication has got to be a very real possibility.

When he arrived the Pope got out, waved his hands, and shuffled his way up the steps of Westminster Abbey as only an 83 year old man can. Most people cheered. Others booed and waved a sign that quoted some fanatical Bible passage. The Pope certainly can bring out the crazies. But some people, like me, just smiled because they were in London and had seen the Pope instead of walking home.

On Sunday I take a train into Brussels. After one night, I go to Bruges for two nights, then I visit my friends Mieke and Lien in Ghent (which is where I post this from a very difficult keyboard). Four nights in Belgium, proud purveyor of the best beer in the world. Do I plan on enjoying myself? Well... after all, the Pope is Catholic.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

park to drive

I leave for London on Tuesday after being home for over three months. It definitely felt good to take a few deep breaths and let life's pulse return to normal. I had a steady dose of family time, good food, and the beach. But the world can only turn so slow until you feel like you have to quicken your pace like a gerbil on a spinning wheel. So I'm leaving again. For the next ten weeks I'll be tramping through Europe like a fat kid cut loose in a chocolate shop.

Here's my itinerary as of today:

Belgium (Brussels, Brugge)
Germany (Cologne, Rhine Valley, Frankfurt, Munich, Berlin)
Switzerland (Interlaken, Murren)
Italy (Amalfi Coast, Naples, Rome, Cinque Terra, Florence, Venice)
French Riviera
Spain (Barcelona, Madrid, ?)
Portugal (Lisbon, ?)

But who knows. Backpacking trips have a tendency to make unexpected stops and turns. We'll see where this one takes me.

Right now I'm enjoying my last beach day. Early September is prime time for it. The tourists have left and school is back in session. But as summer winds down, the beach slowly loses its allure. The gentle ocean breeze that once gave relief from the summer sun now burrows deep into my skin. The shadow from my beach chair reaches out further across the sand. Tiny waves roll under my chair as the tide creeps in. It's time to leave.

So pack the bag. Park to drive. Climb the crest and ride the swell. My chocolate shop awaits.