Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Weekend with friends visiting from Nebr: Highlight - Zaanse Schans Windmills (Aug 1 - 3)

Recently, we were lucky enough to have our second guests in Belgium. Our friends Brett and Emily Meyer from Omaha traveled to Europe at the end July through the middle of August initially for Emily's work in London; though, they were able to make a wonderful vacation out if it! It was nice of them to stop in our neck of the woods for a few days, so we could show them the best of Belgium along with a few sites in Holland (They also went to London, Paris, Switzerland and Italy). We really enjoyed having them here as it was fun to see friendly faces from back home! We packed a lot of destinations into a short time frame, but I think everyone enjoyed themselves. We went to the following places in Belgium: Leuven, Bruges, Ghent and Brussels. We also went to Amsterdam and Zaanse Schans which are in The Netherlands (Holland).

The highlight of Holland had to be 'Zaanse Schans' row of 'working' windmills. We went into two windmills, one being a Paint Mill and the other a Sawmill. It was extremely interesting seeing how they worked. The Paint Mill contained huge cement wheels which rotated when the wind caused the windmill's sails to turn: resulting in the grinding of raw materials into chalk to make pigments for paints. The Sawmill had blades which moved up and down when the windmill's sails rotated; thus, cutting the log. Besides all the old fashion windmills, Zaanse Schans had a few tourist shops and several traditional green wooden Holland houses along the Zaan River.

Next, we ventured back south to Amsterdam (only 20 - 30 minutes away). We saw a few of the tourist attractions and even went in Anne Frank's hiding place (museum) which was a very touching experience. I remember reading "The Diary of Anne Frank" and learning about the Holocaust from my History teacher, Mr. Nienkamp, along with visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC on our Close-Up trip. The museum was quite interesting and actually didn't contain any furniture because Anne's father, the only survivor in his family, didn't want the museum to be furnished; instead it contains mostly dialogues and pictures on the walls along with some video and diagrams (the bookcase, where the secret annex / hiding place was located, is still in the museum).

On the wilder side of Amsterdam, we didn't go into any coffee shops (aka 'Smoke Shops'), but could smell enough 'grass - use your imagination' without even going into them! The Red Light District amused them...we even heard one young boy ask one of the girls "will your clothes come off" and she's like "duh, of course"... we died out laughing! I think he wanted to become a man that night! Also one girl was pulsing / flexing her butt for some young guys...trying to persuade them to come in to her little red light infused room!

The other towns in Belgium that we visited are very cute medieval cities (some with canals, like Amsterdam, but not as extensive) which Shannon and I have been to before, but still enjoyed going back. Leuven is actually only 30 minutes from Brussels, so that's where we ate out the first night our guests arrived (it's a little cheaper outside of Brussels). The next day, which was Friday, we ended up going to Bruges and Ghent (refer to early blogs for history). We saw most of the attractions; plus, made a point to stop at one of my favorite Chocolatiers, Dumon along with sampling some Belgian Waffles and Beer. I even ordered mussels for dinner in Ghent and made our guests try them because you at least have to try them while you're in Brussels! (it's one of their specialties)

The last day we gave them a tour of Brussels. We showed them sites like Cinquantenaire Park, Manniken Pis, The Atomium, The Royal Palace, Grand Place and other unique architecture (refer to early blogs for history). The King's Royal Palace was open to the public in August; therefore, we were able to view the elaborate chambers which included dazzling chandeliers, ornate parquet floors, magnificent furniture, beautiful large pieces of art, high ceilings and stunning reception rooms and the list goes on. The Mirror Room was quite fascinating since it's ceiling and central chandelier have been covered with green iridescent wing cases of 1.4 million Thai jewel beetles, which reflect the light with a curiously vibrant energy. Lastly, we ended our day at Poechenellekelder, a great beer bar, despite its unpronounceable name! Although on a very touristic path (opposite Manniken Pis) this bar has an extensive Belgium beer list.
Zaanse Schans Windmills: Brett, Emily, Shannon & me

Traditional Holland home

More characteristic green wooden houses of Holland

Windmills on the Zaan River

Paint Mill 'De Kat' (processing raw materials to make pigments)

Inside the Paint Mill (huge cement wheels rotate to grind raw materials into chalk to make pigments for paints)

A 'worker' changing the direction of the windmill's sails (notice he's wearing wooden clogs)

On balcony of the windmill

Shannon likes the angle shots!

Sawmill 'Het Jonge Schaap' (the boy is removing the bark, preparing the log to be cut)

Inside sawmill cutting the log (saw blades move up and down when the windmill's sails rotate)

Finished cutting the log

More windmills on the Zaan River

Emily & me

Gouda everywhere! (Holland's famous cheese)

Another cute Holland home

Emily & I trying on wooden clogs in Amsterdam - more comfortable than you think!

Anne Frank house - Amsterdam

Dining out in Leuven the first evening our guests arrived

One of my favorite Chocolatiers: 'Dumon' - Bruges

Brett, Emily, me and Shannon by canal in Bruges

Canal in Ghent

Cinquantenaire Park (it's pretty cool driving under it!) - Brussels

The last day our guests were with us we enjoyed some Belgium beers at Poechenellekelder (note that all beers are served in their own special glass) - Brussels

Sunday outing to Antwerp & Mechelen, both in Belgium (Jul 27)

One Sunday we decided to stroll out to a few cities in the Flemish region of Belgium (north half) that aren't quite as touristy, but beautiful in their own unique way. We first began in Antwerp which is only 30 minutes from Brussels. You might have heard of Antwerp being referred to as 'The Diamond City' (No, that is not the reason why I wanted to go there! Shannon was thankful!). Actually, around 70% of all the diamonds in the world come from Antwerp. Professional diamond buyers, diamond dealers, diamond brokers and jewelry manufacturers are all based here in the diamond district. Ok, enough about diamonds before I decide I need more of them!

Antwerp is the second largest port city in Europe containing a commercial, industrial and financial center and a rail junction. It lies on the Scheldt River which connects with the North Sea (our shipment from the US actually came to Antwerp). I felt Antwerp had a very relaxed setting despite its commercial activity. It has several little market squares with cafes, boutiques and other fun shops. We visited the 'Cathedral of our Lady' which has a very beautiful spiral and dominates the city's skyline. We also saw the 'Castle Steen', located on the Scheldt River, which has roots dating back to the 1st and 2nd centuries; though was renovated in the 16th century. Pieter Paul Rubens, a famous Belgium painter, lived in the castle during his declining years. Now it serves as the Belgian National Maritime Museum.

As we continued exploring the city, we encountered a group of people playing Bocce Ball (aka Bocchi) which is a very big pastime here (originated in Italy and dates back to Roman times). It involves players taking turns throwing balls as close as they can to a 'pallino' or sometimes called a 'jack' (smaller ball basically). The scoring team receives one point for each of their balls that is closer to the jack than the closest ball of the other team. The winner is determined by whoever reaches 13 points first.

After having a drink at one of the many cafes and enjoying the music from the festival that happened to be going on in Antwerp, we decided we'd venture to another nearby town called Mechelen. This city is also in the Flemish region of Belgium. The highly lucrative cloth trade gained Mechelen wealth and power during the late Middle Ages. Like most cities in Belgium, it has a beautiful church referred to as, St. Rumbold's Cathedral, which has an extremely tall tower. We also really liked Mechelen's Town Hall which consisted of very unique and ornate architecture. Mechelen also boasts a good brewery, Het Anker, which I'm sure we'll go to someday.

The first nine photos were taken in Antwerp and the last three were taken in Mechelen.
The 'Castle Steen', former residence of the Count, which was later a prison, now accommodates the National Maritime Museum

Us in front of The Steen

Ornate architecture (similar to other Flemish Towns - Northern half of Belgium)

More beautiful architecture (you'll notice all restaurants have nice patio seating)

What people will do for money these days! (all are real statues except the one I'm next to)

Town Hall (located in the 'Grote Markt' - Flemish for 'Great Market Square')

More fascinating architecture with 'Cathedral of Our Lady' in background

'Bocchi Ball' Game (it's a favorite pastime here - sorry I didn't take a better photo!)

The Gothic 'Cathedral of Our Lady' built between 1352 - 1521 dominates the city's skyline

These last 3 photos were taken in Mechelen
Just some more cool architecture; I'm sure you haven't noticed that I like the buildings in Belgium!

Cathedral in background

Town Hall - extremely detailed!

Day trip to Bruges, Belgium (Jul 12)

We decided to venture out to a town in Belgium that is considered to be one of the most unique and top tourist cities in Belgium. This amazingly well-preserved Gothic city is called Bruges and is only 1 hr NW of Brussels. One of Shannon's coworkers, Jonathan, was nice enough to give us a little tour of this charming city.
Besides taking in all of the beautiful canals within the city, we made time to visit the Town Hall and Basilica of the Holy Blood which are located in the Burg Square (historical birthplace of the city) and the Belfry and Government Palace which are situated in the Market Square (more modern heart of the city). We also stopped at the Church of our Lady which is a striking cathedral and houses the 'Madonna & Child' marble statue of Michelangelo's. Later in the day, we found time to hit a popular Chocolatier called, was it good! Whenever there's a new Chocolatier to try out, I'm there!

There is an interesting legend about the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is famous for its relic of the blood of Christ. My tourist book says it goes something like this, “Several drops of Christ’s blood were preserved in a crystal phial in Jerusalem; and in 1150, the patriarch of Jerusalem gave the blood to a Flemish soldier, Derrick of Alsace (aka Thierry) as thanks for rescuing his city from the Muslims during the Second Crusade. Derrick returned to Bruges and donated it to the city. The old, dried blood suddenly turned to liquid, a miracle repeated every Friday for the next two centuries, and verified by thousands of pilgrims from around Europe who flocked here to adore it. The blood dried up for good in 1325”

Canals are everywhere, hence Bruges's nickname "The Venice of the North"

Notice the dog enjoying some fresh air on the canals watching the tourists go by!

Town Hall

Basilica of the Holy Blood

13th Century Belfry

Jonathan & Shannon infront of the Government Palace

In the Market Square - Elegant stepped facades

Recommended Chocolatier (very good) by "Rick Steve's Guide: Bruges"

Church of Our Lady in background (houses 'Madonna & Child' marble statue by Michelangelo)

Canal photo

Another canal!

Church of Our Lady

What can I say, I like canal photos!

Notice the date written on the building (several buildings have the date written on them to show when they were built)