Friday, 21 December 2007

Bruxelles

We all showered half-standing this morning because the shower rose had nothing to hold it up at a normal height. We went out walking today touring Brussels. We had breakfast at a local (and somewhat dingy) café for only 3€ each for coffee, croissant, and pain-au-chocolat. Returned briefly to Notre-Dame de Finistère, saw the Martyr’s Memorial, the Manneken-Pis statue (dressed as Père Noël!),
revisited the Grand-Place in the daylight,
and passed through the Galeries Royales St-Hubert (a bit like the QVB), to the lovely Cathedralis Ss. Michaelis et Gudulae, where we spent a good hour, viewing the treasures and relics and many multi-national nativity scenes.

Thence to Place d’Albertine, and then into the Musée des Instruments de Musique, the Royal Palace and Parc de Bruxelles.

Went on to the rather disappointingly ugly E.U. Parliament. Lunched at McDonald’s near Porte de Namur. Saw the Palais de Justice (a huge building being renovated with much scaffolding), and Place de la Chapelle. Went to a pub with brewing facilities off the Grand-Place, and had a home brew. Looked in the Tintin Shop, and at various other shops and markets,

and then went to Place Ste-Cathérine where we went on the Ferris Wheel.




Returned to the hotel. Ed went out to look for records, and meanwhile Cédric came early, so Luke and I left a note for Ed with the concierge, and we went in Cédric's car to rue des Prêtres (we got lost on the way and Cédric had to call his father!). Went to a home style restaurant, Au Stekerlapatte. Cédric's friend Yves (a Congolese Belgian) came too, a happy chappie. Ed arrived just as our meals did (he was not in a good mood!). I had Flemish beef stew; Luke had wild boar and red currants; Cédric had duck; Ed had venison; we all had Kriek, an apéritif-beer made with cherries.
We farewelled Yves and he directed us to a brasserie, Le Grand Café, for typical Belgian beers.
Left there at 12.20 a.m. (!) and took 10 minutes to find the car. Thence to a University (ULB) bar, L’Atelier, which serves about 100 beers! There until after 2 a.m. Beers we tried were Leffe Triple, Cigny Brune, Bush Noël, Westmalle Triple, Nostradamus, Stella Artois, Leffe Brune, Kwak, Rodenbach, Judas, Hoegaarden-Grand-Cru, and maybe some more - a veritable selection! Cédric drove (yes, drove after drinking!) us back to the hotel and we farewelled him. It was an excellent and memorable evening which we all enjoyed.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Benelux

Went out with Edward this morning to the bakery for breakfast. Rather cold! Looked at souvenirs before going to the museum "Our Lord in the Attic" (Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder), featuring a clandestine Catholic church, complete with organ.
We checked out of the hotel and went to get souvenirs en route to the Central Station for our Thalys train to Brussels at 12h26.
The train ride showed us lots of snow in the countryside (most we've seen so far) and also a few old windmills (the only ones we saw in the Netherlands) in very poor condition, presumably abandoned.
The man behind the bar in the dining car was friendly and came from a French overseas département.

The Brussels metro uses the same machines as Sydney Buses (except they're orange instead of green)! Our hotel is very nice, and the concierge, Raphael, is very helpful. Telephoned Cédric; left a message on his answering machine.
Walked down to the Grand-Place, beautifully lit along to operatic music. Edward was quite taken with this!




Went into a Roman Catholic church near to where we are staying, Notre-Dame du Finistère. Spoke to Cédric but he was busy and would call back later. Went to dinner on Raphael's advice at Le Saint-Germain, near the Sheraton (we were concerned that it might be very expensive being so close to the luxury hotels, but we found the prices reasonable). A huge but lovely meal. I have never eaten a whole chicken all by myself—until tonight! The waiters here were rather amusing because they did not walk or stop moving, but literally ran all night long! Very efficient people. Cédric telephoned back just after I'd hopped into bed; we organised to dine together tomorrow night at 8 p.m.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Morning bells in a cold city

We hear the bells of the Oude Kerk from our room – very nice. Had patisserie food for breakfast. Walked in the freezing streets (no thanks to the canals), past the Westerkerk,
to Anne Frank’s house. This is a moving museum with striking staircases which are more like ladders; a bit of museum overload can be got in here.
Off we went to the closed Nieuwe Kerk, then the fun and interesting Amsterdam Historical Museum via De Papegaai kerk ("The Parrot", Roman Catholic); lunched at "Wok to Go" (Asian food).
Went to the Oude Kerk (Sweelinck is buried there) with its unusual misericord carvings,
and then wandered around the red-light district and Nieuwe Markt. It's all rather odd here, and this is compounded by dodgy-looking characters loitering on the streets mumbling "Cocaine?" as one walks past.
Had a Koning beer at Pleinzicht tavern (evidently a local and not touristy bar) followed by a traditional Dutch dinner (meatball and mashed vegies, called "Hutspot") and more beer at Luke's Scottish tavern, the Old Highlander.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Staffs to Damrak

Woke early this morning, around 5 a.m.; rose at about 7 a.m. and went to watch some television. For breakfast this morning, Betty made a traditional English meal featuring black pudding, which wasn't quite to my taste!
We set off by car for Birmingham International Airport and it was a hairy drive, when Richard took a wrong turning and reversed back up the motorway ramp, much to the disgust of other drivers! Some emphatic signals and words were exchanged. We arrived safely and had coffee after I'd checked in and read my email for Luke's instructions on how to find the hostel in Amsterdam. I went through security but strangely no immigration. Had some lunch but now, as I am writing this journal, I have a long wait until my flight. The airport here has no announcements; one has to keep an eye on the screens for boarding gate info. The flight was uneventful and quite full.

Upon arrival at Amsterdam Airport, which is very modern and yellow (the efficiency of these people is made clear by the customs declaration – it operates by walking through two sets of unmanned electric doors!), I bought a train ticket to Amsterdam Central and once on a train, hoped like mad that it would go to the right station and not to Frankfurt or something, because I couldn't see much signage in English. After speeding past very suspicious-looking characters at the Central station, I used my intuition and no human interaction to get myself to the Bulldog Hotel. Luke and Ed were waiting in the lobby. Had dinner ("Argentinian" steak) with Ed and when Luke returned to the room later he was cheerful after having made friends with a Melbourne man running a Scottish hostel.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Great Haywood

Took it easy this morning. Went in the car with Richard to the Post Office and to Ingestre to see Sir Christopher Wren's only church outside London, St Mary the Virgin. It was undergoing restoration works.


For lunch we went to a pub, the Radford Bank Inn, for a traditional carvery meal. A rich meal, with plenty of Yorkshire puddings! Saw some sights on the drive, including Chartley Castle. I was questioned and told off by some local busybodies for photographing a Tudor house in which, apparently, Queen Elizabeth I stayed a night. Madness! As if all photographers are staking places out for robbery!

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Dreaming spires and ivory towers

I woke early today, at 4.50 am—odd as I was very tired when I went to bed at 11 pm last night. Went for breakfast in the grand Hall, a very ornate room, the longest hall in Oxford apparently, but the only one I ever saw here! A very good, hearty breakfast: bacon, egg, sausage, yoghurt, pain au chocolat, orange juice, coffee (!). More was available! Chatted with others at table—notably a man up for a conference with friends, dealing with the relationships between mathematics and music. Took photos of the Hall.
Packed my bags and checked out, leaving my baggage in the Porter's Lodge. Walked to the University Church in order to climb the tower but found it closed until after the morning service.
So I walked in a loop via Oxford Castle
and the Oxford University Press to the Oxford Oratory, or Church of St Aloysius Gonzaga, for 11 am Mass. To my surprise, Mass was said in Latin but according to the current Missal and not that of 1962. I have not experienced this before. The music was excellent, as was the behaviour and demeanour of the altar boys. Three priests, rather solemn and wearing lavish garments and biretta hats, concelebrated.


My camera showed a low battery warning at this point but it survived the rest of the day, luckily. I walked back to the University Church and climbed the tower. Excellent views are afforded, and as my luck would have it, the sun was out in a cloudless blue sky! It was still very cold, however. The Radcliffe Camera was shining golden—just perfect for a photograph!
At this point I took a stroll through Christ Church Meadow, taking the longer route this time, along the rivers including the Isis (i.e. Thames).
I saw several squirrels rather close-up, and I did my best to photograph them for Edward's benefit.
Just about filled my memory card (1GB, all I've had to date; 2×2GB await me at Betty & Richard's place).
Went back to Café Loco for lunch around 2.30 pm, a quieter time of day. Soup and 'Firefly' drink (peach, grape, and green tea—very nice!) again, underpriced (in my opinion) at £5.50 in sum. The bells of Magdalen were chiming all afternoon, it seemed!
Strolled back to the shopping district around Carfax for socks at Marks & Sparks. Called for Br Lawrence Lew again at Blackfriars, but this time he was out and a dark Irishman took my name to say I'd called. Went back to Keble to collect my bags, stopping to look at the University Parks. Farewelled Ken the Porter, who was very pleasant and helpful.

I walked the reverse of my original route back to the Railway Station and had a coffee as I waited for my train in the cold 'night' (5 pm) air. Had the whole 'quiet carriage' to myself most of the way to Coventry where I had a 10 minute wait to change to a busier train for Stafford. Wrote my postcards and this journal. Arrived in Stafford a bit early. Richard and Betty were waiting on the platform, and were at first worried that I'd missed the train while I was photographing the platform sign and arranging my bags! We had Chinese for dinner. My first decent sleep, this night!

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Going up

Rose at 6.30 this morning, packed my bags, and breakfasted. Luke and Ed accompanied me to St Pancras Station where we separated and I took the tube to Paddington Station, whence I took the 8.51 train to Oxford (First Great Western). My carriage was practically empty, despite reservations on the seats. A fairly comfortable, well-lit train.
Arrived in Oxford, finding it very cold and fresh, bought a map of the city, and walked towards Keble College.
The Porter, a nice, gentle Scotsman, gave me my keys and some bits of advice. Went up to my room which was extremely spacious and cosy with a large window looking out onto the quadrangle and chapel, then out for a stroll, doing a circuit of several colleges, via Christ Church Meadow.

Had a nice hot bowl of soup for lunch at Café Loco (£5.80 plus £2 Firefly drink),
then visited Christ Church College and Cathedral, where I heard an organist practising. An aged gentleman with a sash was clearly there as a visitor guide, and he answered some of my questions.
Bought some postcards from a lovely, chatty older gentleman. Then into Corpus Christi and then Merton, with its ancient "mob" quadrangle,
and on to Magdalen with its dark and comparatively tiny chapel. Stopped at an ATM and the Post Office (what queues they had!) for stamps.

Saw the Radcliffe Camera, Wren's impressive reading room, and peeped inside the University Church of St Mary the Virgin.
Tried calling on Br Lawrence Lew at Blackfriars but nobody answered the doorbell. Now as dusk approached I looked into the Bodleian quadrangle as the library was closing for the day,
and passed the Divinity School on my way back to Keble.
Had a rest, a cup of tea, and looked into the chapel which was open (I believe there had been a wedding there today); the organ console was open and the whole place looked lovely in the evening glow.

Out again – sans camera (!) – for dinner. Almost chose a pub when a drunk came out for a chat—telling me all about how Oxford had changed since his youth, all these foreigners nowadays, etc. Being saved by someone he knew coming outside, I took my chance and legged it, doing a big loop and ending up at The Crown, which apparently hosted Shakespeare once (no doubt plenty of places have such claims, but it's a nice thought anyway). Had a nice, cheap meal—burger and Yule Tide beer, £7.95.
Back to Keble, then out yet again with camera and monopod to attend "Christmas Carols for Choir and Audience" at the University Church, performed by the Oxford Pro Musica Singers – a bit dear at £12 concession, but well worth it – most enjoyable and good quality singing (the place was full of WASPs, of course, but the lady next to me, whose husband was singing, was pleasant). Took some photos in the street before going to Keble for the evening.