Tag Archive: Travel


The Gems of Antwerp


Over 80% of the world’s rough diamonds pass through Antwerp. Belgium’s 2nd biggest city has everything to do with the ladies’ best friends — from cutting to polishing to trading right within the city’s “Diamond Quarter” spanning one square mile. But we didn’t come here for the precious gems. We came here to check out the gothic Cathedral of Our Lady of Antwerp — a house of worship as well as a museum housing Rubens’ artworks.

Antwerp

Antwerp

Judging by the many falafel food stalls we found here, there seems to be a big community of Jewish residents likely working in the diamond industry. It’s a big city and there were throngs of tourists offloaded from tourist coaches at the time we visited. Our tour guide Jasmine gave us some fascinating stories about Antwerp, including the residents’ aversion to the French language. Her advice? Speak Dutch if you can, English if you can’t. Never French. Don’t ask me why.

Antwerp

But if you’re going to Antwerp and have very limited time, you can skip the port area and just devote an hour or so in the Cathedral to admire the Rubens masterpieces hanging inside along with those of other Flemish painters. And if you still have some spare time and still hungry for more, try the Rubenshuis. This is the former Flemish townhouse, studio and workshop of Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens in Antwerp. The artist was laid to rest in another church in Antwerp though , the Saint James Church. His “Our Lady Surrounded by the Saints” adorn the altar in this church.

Not just a triptych but all of 5 panels. Rubens have 3 major works here: “The Elevation of the Cross”, “Descent from the Cross” and “Assumption of Virgin Mary”. In his lifetime, Rubens reputedly kept going back to these subjects for his artwork. Smaller versions are to be found in the Louvre and in the Art Gallery of Ontario. No wonder Napoleon brought these art pieces back to France, only to return the loot in 1815. They have since remained here in the Church of Our Lady of Antwerp, where they belong. The REAL GEMS OF ANTWERP. Who needs diamonds?


In the northwest of Belgium lies Bruges, the capital and biggest city of West Flanders. You would not want to miss this fairy-tale medieval town with its charming market squares, cobble-stoned walkways, a skyline of soaring spires, the clatter of horse-drawn carriages, swans gliding across the waters, the whitewashed almshouses and dreamy canals. Belgium is most certainly more than just fries, chocolates, mussels, waffles and beer. One would think it’s such a small country and visiting the capital Brussels is enough. Well, we spent a week in this European capital and made good time doing day trips from the capital. Got to say we were so happy to base ourselves in Brussels for a week to do as many day trips. One city or town each day. We wanted to do it more leisurely this time. If I were to change anything at all, I’d plan to stay a couple of nights here in Bruges!

Bruges

Bruges

The first 3 photos were our first impressions of Bruges. I wasn’t expecting to see horse-drawn carriages but they sure enhance the medieval splendour of this very Flemish city. Throw in those step-gabled building facades. The canals. And that iconic octagonal belfry called Belfort. If I didn’t see it for myself, I would have guessed this was some Hollywood Studio prepping for a period movie. I nearly imagined a lovely lady coming out of one of these buildings dressed in a lacy gown and a bonnet with ribbon ties around her long neck. Others may remember the movie “In Bruges” but our guide gently told us NOT to believe everything depicted there as something coming out of Bruges. I have not seen the movie, so I can’t confirm that.

Bruges

Bruges

The wealth and former glory of Bruges is not easy to ignore. Strategically located, Bruges was a trading hub and the merchants freely traded their products here and even innovated their trading practices which turned out to be the forerunner of a bourse or stock exchange. From the Merchants of Venice to the more creative banker-capitalists of Bruges who likely invented the core of the banking business like promissory notes, shares of stock, stock exchange and money market? Amazing to learn how many of the banking transactions still in use today may have started here.

Bruges

Bruges

With progress, the newfound wealth found its way in various art forms. Art found many patrons and many Flemish painters thrived. So did other European masters. The Madonna of Bruges by Michelangelo was his only artwork ever to leave Italy during his lifetime. Stolen, smuggled and then claimed back and restored, it is back and thankfully restored in its place in Church of Our Lady in Bruges. Jan Van Eyck, the father of oil painting, once lived in Bruges where he actually founded an art school for aspiring Flemish artists. Many artists must have drawn inspiration here. And that is not difficult to appreciate.

Bruges

Bruges

If you love art, you need more than a day trip. There are many art galleries in Bruges. Apart from the museums showcasing Flemish Primitive Painting, there is a vibrant contemporary art scene here. But even if you don’t hit the museums, you will enjoy just roaming around here. Like wandering aimlessly? Trust me, it’s good in cleansing the cobwebs off our minds and it feeds the soul. Besides, walking is good for your health!

Bruges

Bruges


“Ganda” in my native language means beauty. Here in Belgium, “Ganda” translates to “joining up” or “confluence”. As in the confluence of the 2 rivers: Lys and Scheldt. And GANDA is a very apt adjective to describe this once-powerful city state. Ghent’s medieval feel is palpable. So is her “university city” feel. Once so powerful, it’s prosperity and influence showed in the city’s belfry, the castle with a moat, the many guild halls, the cathedral and many historic and civil edifices. What a pleasant surprise! A pity it is often skipped as many others preferred to just pass it on the way to Bruges, another medieval village straight out of one’s dreams.

Ghent

Ghent

Ghent is actually older than Bruges. I hate to compare the 2, but let me just say that Ghent has its own charm. If you like old town feel, art and history, you won’t get disappointed. And that boat ride? I highly recommend it. Just 45 minutes of relaxation, cool breeze, old world charm and history lessons. The boat passes many centuries-old guild halls, cozy hidden by-the-canal bistros and bars, private residences and former merchants’ offices turned and repurposed into chic hotels, restaurants or corporate offices. There is no national or municipal funding to restore historic buildings but there is a law to preserve their facade. It is thus not surprising to see this old architecture housing modern interiors. From outside, one can appreciate those stepped gables and brick buildings, and then be transported back to present times as one enters such buildings. One example is the Marriott Hotel here. Formerly a whorehouse or brothel, it has since been restored and fitted with modern amenities following Marriott’s hotel brand.

Ghent

The Cathedral of Saint Bavon in Ghent is just a stone’s throw away from the Church dedicated to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of mariners and traders. Just like the other historic buildings, these worship places don’t get funding from any institution. We were surprised to learn the church can be used as an events place. No wonder we didn’t find any pews, only stacking chairs which can easily be removed at moment’s notice. Can you imagine holding a concert here? Or a wedding party? We visited on a Friday and the square behind the Church is being prepped as a weekend market complete with food trucks selling all kinds of Belgian junk food and different varieties of beer. I just love how the Belgians love to eat. And take pride in what many otherwise consider as junk food : fries, chocolates, waffles, candies, meatballs, poffertjes (mini, fluffy pancakes), etc. And you can tell the locals from most tourists by the sauce they eat their frites with. Definitely no ketchup for the Belgians!

Ghent

Ghent

Ghent

The Van Eyck brothers left a lasting legacy to Ghent. Not much is known about Hubert but the younger Jan Van Eyck is the first Flemish painter who signed his works. Both are credited as founders of a school of painting in Bruges and other art schools in Northern Europe. Hubert collaborated with Jan Van Eyck in the latter’s 1432 masterpiece, “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece. For a small fee, one can view this masterpiece inside the Cathedral of Saint Bavon in Ghent. Jan Van Eyck’s other masterpiece – The Arnolfini Portrait — is housed in the National Art Gallery in London.

Adoration of The Mystic Lamb

Marriott Hotel in Ghent

The Food Truck Market in Ghent

Ghent is fascinating to visit. It isn’t just another university town though it deserves to be taken seriously as such, ranking #69th among the world’s best schools. Students here have the best of both worlds. A world-ranking university, history and beauty all around, and yummy street food perfect for students on a budget! And there’s always the beer for every whim to celebrate. And for every good beer, there’s likewise good-quality coffee. These Belgians sure know to get a high on food and drinks! ๐Ÿบ

Old Market, now a Tapas Bar in Ghent

Who wants the โ€œnosesโ€ candies of Ghent?

Touchdown Brussels!


We left Amsterdam a day ahead of our schedule and totally wasted a paid hotel night to beat the transport strike on the very day we’re taking the train for Brussels. This also meant foregoing plans to visit Haarlem and Gouda as we decided to hop on the next train before many others. When we arrived in Brussels, an announcement was made that the train won’t stop at some stations because of some “accident”. Our hotel was a station away from Bruxelles Central Station, which was a good thing. As it turned out, there was a bomb scare in the bigger stations. No wonder we noticed armed guards and a military truck when we strolled around the area some days later.

Brussels

One of many beers in Brussels

All’s well then. We met a Filipino tourist in Amsterdam who said that he did not feel so safe in Brussels. We don’t know what prompted this but we’re having a wonderful time here. Much of the action centered around the Grand Place where the tourist crowd is thickest, naturally. In a city populated by as many as 184 nationalities though, the only way to separate the “locals” from the tourists is that ubiquitous CAMERA. During our walking tour, every corner, nook and cranny has at least 5 different nationalities. Consequently, one hears 5 different languages simultaneously at any given time. Can’t be more multi-ethnic and multi-cultural than that. As we meandered around the square and the narrow alleys, we made it a point to be a step ahead of the throngs of tourists unloaded from buses at various corners. You’d be amazed how many try to have selfie shots of that tiny boy with the tiny xxx in Manneken Pis. We passed the statue twice, if only to view it undressed at night and garbed in some costume during the day.

Manneken Pis

Royal Palace

Going to Atomium and Royal Palace took some effort. We hopped on a tram and walked a bit to reach these attractions. In my view, you can skip the Atomium. The Palace is worth seeing, and if you like, you only need to walk further to reach the EU Headquarters. We passed up on this though since many roads leading to it were blocked or had heavily-armed guards and military trucks. Instead, we spent more time at the Grand Place. Having learned of the recent bomb scare, we chose to be more cautious. Besides, there’s tons more to see around Brussels! And a few day trips to make outside of the capital — all just an hour or so away by train or bus.

Atomium

Grand Place

Our plan included a day trip each to Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp. With 5 whole days and 6 nights in Brussels, we easily filled out our travel itinerary. It would have been ideal to include a day trip to Luxembourg but most day tours are fully booked. It wasn’t in the stars. But who’s complaining? We made these very easy day trips, leisurely spent our holidays, ate our annual quota of fries, waffles and mussels, and drank only a few of the hundred beer varieties here. We love it here ๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿบ๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿบ๐Ÿ’•

Albertina Place

City Hall

Cathedral of Saints Michael and Gedula

Galleria St. Hubert . Older than Vittorio Emmanuel In Milan

Moules Frites @ Chez Leon

We’ve been lucky with our walking tours and day trips in ALL my travels. Out of Amsterdam, we booked trips to Delft and The Hague. Because they’re near each other, we thought we’d book a combination day tour. Typical of me to prep and read up on the city or town attractions, dripping with excitement over the sites to see. Unfortunately, we had the worst tour guide ever. Lazy, inattentive and with absolutely no regard for making the tour worthwhile for the client visitors. We breezed through many of the sites riding the tourist coach, getting off only 3x in places where we were given an hour or so to roam — unguided — on our own. ๐Ÿ™„ Had we known, we could have just hopped on a train, skipped a few sites and DIY’d it. We could have covered more, lingered longer AND saved ourselves the frustrations.

The Royal Delft Factory and Museum was our first stop. A young lady from Royal Delft welcomed and escorted us through the factory and museum. The highlight was watching this lady artist do her stuff in this earthenware factory that’s been around since the 17th century. It was a good and educational tour, but no thanks to our Tour Guide. By the time we were done, this tour guide who must not be named was waiting, a tad dazed and reeking of alcohol. We were seated up front and I could smell him. His spiel by this time is slurred, and we had to strain to understand what he was saying. Still, we were excited that we are now headed for the city square of Delft — the birthplace of Jan Vermeer and the former royal seat of the House of Orange. Much to see right within this square. There is the 13th century City Hall, rebuilt in the 17th century in the Renaissance style. Then there’s the gothic New Church right across the square from the City Hall which is by no means “new”, dating back to the 15th century. Now the royal mausoleum of the family of William I of Orange, the Church has a tower one can climb up to for a panoramic view of the entire Delft. Between these 2 historical landmarks are quaint shops and cafes. Perfect for people watching if one has the time.

I must say this Tour Guide Who must not be named should have taken the time to guide us around this Square. But no, he simply instructed us to go explore on our own and to meet him back in the parking area where the bus would be waiting in an hour. He could at least have guided us the first 15 minutes before leaving us to explore more on our own. After all, he stayed right within the square, claiming a table and drinking more beer. Oh well. From the square, we rounded up a corner and chanced upon a lively Saturday Market which could have interested the others in our group. But no, this mister is far too busy downing bottles of beer. ๐Ÿบ๐Ÿป๐Ÿบ

If you think that’s bad enough, let me tell you about the last segment of the tour. We hardly saw The Hague except for an hour we were forced to waste in Madurodam, a miniature theme park which featured scale models of famous landmarks in The Netherlands. I’m sorry but this hardly excited me. I am willing to concede it’s a matter of personal preference but seriously, I would have preferred more time spent in The Hague’s more interesting and historical spots. Instead, we had a 5-minute stop at the Peace Palace and a “drive through” the many embassies in this city. Yes, a drive through of the embassies. I was hoping to see the iconic Protestant Church, International Court of Justice, the Maurithuis which houses Jan Vermeer’s “The Girl With the Pearl Earrings”, and other celebrated works of Rembrandt and other notable Dutch masters. Zilch.

Did I even manage to take photos of The Hague? Just one. And this was taken from a moving bus. So frustrated. But I’d stop ranting at this point. We’ve been lucky with our other plans. Can’t win them all.

Say ZAANSE SCHANS


That popular Dutch icon besides clogs and cheese — Windmills! And Zaanse Schans with its collection of historic windmills and brightly painted green wooden houses and barns is sooo near the capital. Just 30 minutes. Maybe shorter. Seriously. If you’re a good and confident biker, why not check this one out? It’s full of tourists mid morning so if you’re biking or driving, make an early start. or maybe go by boat? I saw some boat tours. We visited this site as a day trip in combination with other attractions. So there. It could be better. Fortunately, we had a pair of very competent and young guides with us.

Zaanse Schans

Zaanse Schans

It was cloudy the morning we visited, but pleasant at 15-18C. Zaanse Schans is a good intro to Dutchland. Here you’d find a cheese and dairy factory, clog making shop, a tin factory and barns. That is, if you can stroll past the bakery where the aroma of freshly-baked cookies and those stroopwafels or syrup waffles waft so invitingly in the air. Had to stop. Sometimes, you have to allow yourselves to be led by the nose. Those 2 thin layers of dough sandwiching a layer of caramel (there are other flavours) syrup between them are too good to ignore. You just have to watch it because you find it nearly everywhere here and those thin waffles really pack some calories!

Zaanse Schans

Zaanse Schans

Cloudy skies. Cool weather. A slight breeze. A fine morning to visit this recreated 18th century windmill village in Zaanstad north of Amsterdam. A few windmills still stand out of the 600 wind-powered machines constructed in the 17th century. Like a prelude to an Industrial Zone. The few standing now still hit a spot. So charming in this countryside. And hey, it’s soooo Dutch!

Zaanse Schans

Zaanse Schans

Oh…. and how to say Zaanse Schans? I won’t even try. Listen to this.

https://www.howtopronounce.com/dutch/zaanse-schans/


Back in 1986, I visited a couple of fishing villages near Amsterdam. I thought then how sooo Dutch these fishing villages were. Cheese, herring, clogs, and more cheese. It was an unforgettable experience especially for someone traveling solo. No digital camera. No credit card. No ATM or debit card. And just one jacket. I came to Holland for the tulips and windmills. I found them but my fondest memories were those spent in Volendam and Marken, eating herring and cheese. ๐Ÿ˜œ

Fishing Villages Near Amsterdam

Heaven!

I tried to relive that 1986 episode by revisiting these 2 villages. Those cheese wheels still leave me salivating and I was in heaven tasting all kinds of Dutch cheeses in this shop where the staff offers cubes and cubes and slices of aged cheese. By the time I was lined up to pay for my purchases, I’ve had a good sampling of them cheeses. Dipped in mustard, honey or herbed oil, this tasting left us buying more. Someone is happy ๐Ÿ’•

Volendam Cheese Shop

Fishing Village of Volendam

There is also the excitement over the prospect of an herring lunch in Volendam. Kibbeling fish and chips plus a bottle of the local beer completes the deal. My love affair with pickled herring began in 1986 and still burns strong this 2019. I craved for it daily since this day trip to Volendam. I heard that snacking on one herring sandwich a day won’t hurt and is actually good for one’s health. Naaaah…… I made that up. ๐Ÿ˜‚

(But we need our omega -3, right?)

Herring and Robust Beer for Lunch

A Cheese Shop in Volendam

Marken is just a 30-minute ferry ride away from Volendam. Separated from the mainland after a storm in the 13th century, then reconnected in 1957, it managed to preserve its many local traditions. Like Volendam, seafood delicacies abound and you’re never short on choices. A clog making workshop still exists and draws in many tourists. It’s not a chore to circle the “island” if one has the time. The stilt houses may look more modern than traditional now, but I still find these colourful wooden houses quite charming. Lovely day trip and it’s so near from the capital!

Fishing Villages Near Amsterdam

Fishing Villages Near Amsterdam


Say that again….. Giethorn or Giethoorn. Either way, you pronounce the “o” or “oo” like a single “o” as in horn. But roll your “r” and have an imaginary “e” between r and n. Got it? Oh, never mind. North of Amsterdam is this water village popularly called “Venice of the North”. Don’t ask me why but I do think Giethoorn’s beauty is so different from Venice and it won’t be fair to compare the two. With its centuries-old thatched-roof houses lining the canals, its charm can be appreciated from a boat or by walking its many footpaths and bicycle paths. It is worth the 2-hour trip from the capital, for sure.

Village of Giethoorn

Village of Giethoorn

There is a Museum and art galleries and curio shops abound. Plus you’d love the quaint coffee shops, aromatic cheese shops and dining areas where we partook of a delectable steak and some fish with chips and garden salad. Fortified with a good meal, we had the energy to walk around the village, crossing many tiny bridges and even checking out the gelato bars. All that time, the waterways were filled with boats, some manned/rowed by tourists who likely held an oar for the first time in their lives. I have to give credit to the professional boat men who never lost their cool while watching them amateurs navigate the canals, bumping left side, right side and rowing in a circle!

The Village Of Giethoorn

I’m told the waterways aren’t that deep. Was actually thinking how many bikes (and bikers) may have lost their balance and dropped/slid to the waters. I’m also curious how the residents can put up with a village teeming with boatfuls of visitors, some too curious nosy to actually step on a private garden just for one damn instagram shot. We went on a weekday and can just imagine the crowds and the noise on weekends in this car-Free village lying in the northeastern Dutch province of Overijssel. I can’t even imagine how crowded those tiny, narrow 170 bridges could be while punters carrying nosy and noisy tourists pass under.

Village of Giethoorn

Village of Giethoorn

Most tourists who rode the boats took time to walk around the water village, the church, cheese shops and ice cream bars. The narrow bridges make for “friendly encounters” especially when you cross paths many times. I’ve also met many dogs ๐Ÿ• who seem to enjoy seeing the colourful boats plying the canals. By the 3rd time you cross paths with someone, you’ve grown “close” . ๐Ÿ˜‚ If I were to head back here, I’d likely go much earlier in the morning or much later in the afternoon when the crowds have gone or haven’t arrived. It must be quite an idyllic experience to take one of those small boats called punters or to simply walk around crossing as many of the 170 wooden bridges connecting the tiny islands. Yes, that’s what I’d do. Nonetheless, it is still a wonderful experience. Let me just say I can do with less noise.

Village of Giethoorn

Village of Giethoorn

Village of Giethoorn


The first time I (solo) visited Amsterdam was in 1986. I couldn’t get Keukenhof out of my mind then. The next one was in 2000. Quite a long time till this visit. We snagged a free walking tour of the City, a (first) lunch in a pancake house before visiting the Anne Frank House, a 2nd lunch in that Bohemian Jordaan neighbourhood and finally a quick visit of the Red Light District.

This tiny country packs a lot. This time, I won’t miss the chance to do more day trips in the next 6 days out of Amsterdam. There’s Giethorn, Delft, The Hague, Leiden, Haarlem, Volendam (this one I visited in ’86) and many more. Never realised how easy this was to do with each out-of-the-city site a mere half-hour to 2 hours max away. The train and bus systems work, and there are plenty of things to do even within the city. The museum and art scene is very vibrant. Think Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Bosch. And the coffee and bar culture? We even found a tiny church converted into a bar complete with a pulpit, a cross on the panelled wall and some Turkish lamps! No wonder there are sooo many tourists especially at this time of the year. There’s always something for the art and culture geek, for the camwhoring tourists, the gay lovers (the first gay marriage was legitimised here), and yes, there’s the “sex and drugs” scene. Weather was a very pleasant 17-20C — perfect weather for walking.

There’s something about (clean) canals that fascinate us. Like Venice. But unlike Venice, the bridges crossing the canals are wider here, and not as easy to get lost ๐Ÿ™„. I could have skipped the Red Light District but we have a couple of first-timers in our group of 6, so we went. Our 24-hour travel pass was put to good use. More so since we chose a hotel outside the city center but just a mere 1-3 stops away via the bus or train station right next to our hotel.

It was a good first whole day in this city. Since we were blessed with good weather, we thought the museums can wait. Walking around and day trips to outside towns and big cities are the order of the day. Watch this page!


Or make that 6 in a million tourists who visit Stonehenge annually. Most definitely one of UK’s iconic sites. Its UNESCO World Heritage status attracts tourists from all over the world eager to tick it off a bucket list yet allowing only a quick photo opportunity of this ancient world wonder. I am just as guilty as many. Stonehenge is one big, mysterious circle of stones that likely fails to fully satisfy one’s curiosity. Who built them 5,000 years ago? What and how was the entire stone formation used for? Why was it built here in an open field in Wiltshire, England? Speculations abound, ranging from a religious ceremony site to some (alien) spacecraft landing pad. Whoa!

So many theories. But what’s for certain is where those stones in the inner circle come from. Scientific studies point to the Preseli Mountains in Wales. I know…. you’re curious too who moved these stones from 240 kilometres away or who orchestrated such a major project. Whatever. I’m attracted to prehistoric stuff — anything ancient — and curious over sites and architectural wonders whose purpose remains a mystery. And hey, the vast field surrounding this Neolithic structure is dotted now with blooming canola flowers and really stout sheep who looked soooo cute running across the field. Just beautiful!