Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

Brussels’ Hidden Gems 2

After food, beer, and chocolate (see Hidden Gems 1), what  more do you need? Well, Brussels has a lot more to offer, and a lot more than I can summarize here. These are just a few of the delightful spots in the city you might miss, if you just rush through the typical tourist spots.

Museums

Brussels is filled with all kinds of museums. Of course, we went to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts to see the Flemish Masters, though unfortunately, this year my favorite part, the Museum of Modern Art was closed for renovations, so only a limited collection was on view. We also visited the Antoine Wiertz and Constantin Meunier museums, and the newest of the Royal Museums dedicated to René Magritte. Also in Elsene (Ixelles), where we were staying, is the Victor Horta Museum dedicated to one of the founders of Art Nouveau. But of all the museums we went to, one of the biggest surprises was the Military History Museum in the Park du Cinquantenaire. Much of it held the old moldy uniforms and sabers one might imagine, but the medieval armor exhibit was quite extensive and informative. And for fans of aviation, there is a whole wing with airplanes from the First and Second World Wars on display. Well worth the price of admission (which is free), and a good place to go on a rainy day.

While you’re in the neighborhood, you might stop over at the auto museum or at the Royal Museum of Art and History. Though not as extensive as the Louvre, the collections here are quite impressive and well laid out. Don’t go looking for fine art (at least not from Belgium), but you will find everything from ancient Babylonian artifacts (some are castings of 19th Century finds that are housed elsewhere, but were made at the time for Belgian scholars to study and translate; others are original artifacts), Greek and Roman statues, pottery, etc. (including an impressive audio/visual model of the Roman forum area), Egyptian tombs, statues, and complete mummies, Native American and Pacific Island artifacts, archeological finds from prehistoric Belgium, 19th Century astrological instruments, and the list goes on and on. We spent all morning in the museum and could barely tear ourselves away for lunch at 2:00 p.m. There was still much more to be seen.

Another surprise was the Brussels Tram Museum, that Kim and Aidan went to see. We love riding trams in the city (and metro and busses), so we knew Aidan would love this museum, but the extent and pristine condition of the collection was amazing. And Kim and Aidan were able to take a ride on a historic tram through the beautiful park Woluwé. Aidan even got to steer (on a tram that wasn’t moving, of course). With one of the oldest tram systems in the world, Brussels is a fitting place to see some of the history of this delightful mode of transportation. Tourists can even take guided tram tours of the city, and trams can be rented for parties and special events. Needless to say, we didn’t have that experience, but it sounds unique.

Parks

Brussels is one of the greenest of capital cities with thousands of acres of parks. You don’t have to go too far to find a city square with trees, grass, flowers (the roses were gorgeous in June while we were there), and a few benches. We loved the Petite Sablon, Park Leopold, Cinquantenaire Park, among many others, but our favorite spot in all of Brussels may well have been the Forest of Soignies. It was a good hike or an easy tram ride from Place Flagey near our apartments, and it is a vast forest surrounded by the city. I only got to go there once, but Kim and Aidan went to several different parts of the forest, where there are walking paths, semi-wild animals (not at all afraid of humans), ponds, birds, trees (obviously), and best of all quiet. At least in the area near the old hippodrome, we were able to get far enough away from the streets and highways that you could completely forget you were in a city. Even if you can’t make it down to the forest, there are often little walled-in parks and gardens like the Jardin Jean-Félix Hap that we discovered not far from Place Jourdan. Consult your map for a patch of green or keep your eyes open for a gate in a wall that might just lead to a quiet public space.

Street Art

As I mentioned above, we visited the Victor Horta Museum and learned more about the Art Nouveau architects of Brussels. One of the joys of living in the city was walking around and discovering beautiful buildings. Near the museum is a walking tour that can get you started. Keep your eyes open for the gorgeous ironwork and fascinating painted or mosaic façades, and you will find more examples of this style as you walk around the city, especially in the European District and other neighborhoods a little beyond the city center.

While you’re walking, you’ll also notice some of the many comic book murals that are scattered throughout the city. A trip to the Belgian Comic Strip Center might be worth your while. To be honest, we didn’t make it this trip. Instead, we took a short train ride down to Louvain-la-Neuve to visit the Hergé Museum and learn more about the creator of Tintin.

And if you wander down the right street, you just might encounter this competitor to the Manneke Pis, the Zinneke statue. The mongrel dogs that roamed by the Senne river that once flowed through the center of Brussels (until it was covered over, though it still flows beneath the city) were given this name, and the dog has become a mascot for Brussels multiculturalism. Every other year (on even numbered years) there is a Zinneke Parade, celebrating Brussels’ multi-lingual and multicultural communities. If you happen to be in Brussels in mid-May, you might even run into it. If not, see if you can find this slightly disrespectful dog making his mark on the city.

Brussels’ Hidden Gems 1

ImageEveryone knows that in Brussels you visit the Grote Markt (Grand Place), look for the Manneke Pis, and maybe stop by the Atomium, but if you have more than a day, here are a few things you really should try. First and foremost, enjoy the food! Belgium is well-known for chocolates (believe me, the more expensive ones are usually worth it; we loved some of the artisanal chocolateries in the center of town, but we also liked to get pralines and truffles from our local bakery–and don’t miss the pastries, cakes, pies, and other delicacies).

Fresh bread, rolls called ‘pistolets,’ and chocoladebroodjes (pain au chocolat) can be found at any corner bakery, and there are usually several to choose from within walking distance. We bought ours at Allemeersch a little boulangerie off the Place Jourdan, since that was near our apartments. There was also an open air market on the weekends, where we could get good cheese, butter, strawberries, etc. And of course, the grocery store supplied us with strong coffee, jam, and Nutella. Breakfasts on our little veranda were a joy when the weather was nice, which we were lucky to have for the first week or so before it turned cold and rainy again for awhile. You never know in Belgium! But most of our time in June was warm and nice, and we were glad to have jackets and umbrellas for the other days.

Of course, the other food you must try in Brussels are the frites. Fries eaten from a paper cone on the street (or take them home) with spicy mayonnaise sauce are hard to beat, especially while they’re hot. And the food is cheap, even at restaurants, if you get away from the touristy areas. We loved the fries on Place Flagey, though Antoine’s on Place Jourdan was also excellent and may have a little more old-fashioned ambiance, especially if you take your fries and sit at one of the many cafes that allow you to bring them in and buy a drink.

Once you’ve had your breakfast or lunch, though, you may be hankering for some Belgian beer. In Brussels, the traditional brew is Lambiek, a beer that is traditionally brewed using a natural fermentation process. We took our group of students to the Cantillon Brewery, which is operated as a museum. There we could see the shallow vats, where the beer is exposed to the bacteria in the air (found only in this valley of Brabant) that causes the fermentation to start, giving this beer a sour taste like sourdough bread.

We also learned how they age the beer in oak barrels and then mix differently aged lambieks to make Geuze or mix lambiek with whole fruit to create Kriek (cherry), Frambois (raspberry), Pêche (peach), or other flavored beers that are quite tart, yet very refreshing. Lambieks are an acquired taste, and not all of our students liked them, but some who weren’t beer drinkers normally found they liked these flavors more than other beers they had sampled. If you don’t have time for a brewery tour, you can still get traditional lambiek beers at several cafés in the city center, including brown cafés like Toon, A la Becasse, and Au Bon Vieux Temps. You might walk right by these, since they are literally a hole in the wall that leads down a narrow alleyway to the bar behind a store front.

Apologies to Chicago or ‘Truth’ in Poetry

As I wrote awhile back, we visited Chicago this summer. I got to read at the Uptown Poetry Slam and see old friends. We also drove around the city (driving the Loop on Sunday morning was delightful!), took the dog to the Montrose dog park, had Leona’s pizza in my old neighborhood, and had a thoroughly wonderful time.

That all got me thinking about a poem I wrote several years ago that is in my new book Time Capsules. The poem is “Travelogue,” and it was written on a cross-country trip as an experiment in writing very autobiographical poetry about what was happening as it happened. Mind you, this could be dangerous to do while driving, but never fear, I did stop to write most of the time. Occasionally, I jotted a line or a few words on a scrap of paper, but mostly composed in my head or waited until I could take a break to write. Everything in the poem happened in one way or another, though I quickly found that memory became a theme even though I had planned to write about the present. Past memories and present experiences merged, which should probably not come as a surprise, since I was driving for days by myself with just a cassette player and my dog to keep me company.

Though my goal was to write the truth, I also realized quickly that the truth is a slippery concept in a poem. Hence my need to apologize to Chicago or to my friends who stayed there, at any rate. While driving the interstate in heavy traffic, I was caught in a long traffic jam. This reminded me of some of the reasons I left the city — the traffic, the concrete, the heat in summer, the crowds of people — all of which could be exciting and oppressive, especially to a kid from a small town.That section of the poem ends:

             …Now I
remember why I left Chicago.
It was not the traffic really,
but all that concrete and so
many people going nowhere.

Though true for me, and certainly true of the traffic jam I was in as I drove I-80, I felt even as I wrote it that the last line both was and wasn’t true. There are so many people in Chicago, but many are going places, even though at the time I left, I felt I needed to move on to go where I wanted to go. So for my friends who have gone many places while staying in Chicago, and even for myself, now that I see where I might have gone had I stayed there, the last line isn’t true. And yet in the moment of composition it was the truest line I could write. To say more would have overburdened the poem.

Of course, this is the case in any poem, and it’s not just a matter of poetic license. The demands of the form you are working with or the demands of the thematic choices you have decided on (to write the truth as you see it at the moment of the writing, for instance), affect what you can or should say. The sound of a word or the length of a sentence can demand that you need to tell it ‘false’ in order to reveal the ‘truth.’ The truth of any situation is complicated and has many facets; a poem often can only hold some of the many ways of looking at it.

For “Travelogue” this was even more the case than usual, since I was weaving together the surreal experiences of memory and a long drive. And as with any autobiography, experience became subjective even when ‘recorded’ as it was happening, since it was filtered through my experience of it and my thoughts and memories. This became a theme for the book as a whole, or at least for parts of it, as the working title of the collection remained “Travelogue and Other Poems” for quite awhile.

Continental Divide

We were reminded of the meaning of the term “Continental Divide” a couple of times this summer when we crossed it in places you might not expect. Traveling east towards Duluth from the Mississippi Headwaters, we crossed it when we left the Mississippi River basin and entered the Great Lakes basin. We tend to think of the Continental Divide as one line running down the highest mountains in the continent, but there are actually several lines, on each side of which, the rivers flow in different directions. Minnesota has three. The Mississippi heads north for a while, then turns south, flowing to the Gulf of Mexico, as everyone knows. The Great Lakes feed into the St. Lawrence and flow east to the Atlantic (more on this, in a minute!). The Red River, as I learned during the news coverage of this winter’s flooding, flows north into Hudson Bay. There are contintental divides in the west (Rockies) and east (Appalachians) as well.

But I was most surprised to learn that Ernest Hemmingway was born near the continental divide in Oak Park, Illinois, just west of Chicago. A little sign in Scoville Park alerted me to this fact. From this slight rise eastward, all water flows into Lake Michigan. Or it used to, at any rate, until they re-engineered the Chicago River to flow south out of the lake (instead of into it) by digging the Ship and Sanitary Canal that connected it to the Des Plaines River in 1900. Checking my facts for this post, I learned that two other rivers or creeks were reversed in the area before the Chicago River was.

Writing this on a rainy afternoon, I am reminded of the importance of watersheds, and the sometimes subtle ways that they define our geography and the cultures that live in them. This summer we thoroughly enjoyed traveling along the Mississippi and the shores of two of the Great Lakes. Aidan and I even had a chance to swim in Lake Michigan–a bit of a shock on a rather cool July day! And we enjoyed stopping to read the roadside markers that told about the land and its history.

That reminds me of an exercise I thought about giving to my creative writing students (but didn’t, since the semester was nearing the end, and I didn’t know if they would be driving anywhere). Stop sometime to read a Historical Marker — how many do we speed past on the highway without taking the time to read — and read about the place or event that it describes. You might be inspired to learn more about that place and write about it, or you might use words from the sign in a poem or story that has nothing to do with the immediate subject of the sign. The point is to take a moment to stop and consider the landscape and the words someone has used to record it.

The Father of Waters or What I did on my Summer Vacation

One of the places we visited this summer was the Mississippi River. It’s hard to call this a ‘place,’ though, since we crossed and recrossed it all summer long, starting with our first trip down to Natchez to the Great Big Yam Potatoes old time music festival in May. There we walked along the bluffs of the river and visited the mounds at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians. On July 3rd we watched fireworks along the river in Dubuque, Iowa, where we had traveled for a reunion. The next day we toured the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, where we saw channel cat, alligator gar, and lots of other fish, plus river otters, exhibits, and even a dredge riverboat. Traveling back to Osage with my mother, we stopped in Guttenburg, where my ancestors first crossed the river into Iowa, then went on to McGregor. The view there from Pike’s Peak (yes, named after the same Zebulon Pike who named the other, taller peak) used to be our favorite view of the river, and a frequent stop when I was a boy, anytime we headed east on Highway 9.

Mississippi at Pike's Peak

Mississippi at Pike's Peak

Though we always cross the river on our way to Iowa, spending this much time along it reminded me how important a presence it was for me growing up. We lived along the Cedar River, and often biked a mile or so out a gravel road to fish or swim in it. But the Mississippi was always grander, and always called us back whenever we could go.

Another site along the river that we visited were the Effigy Mounds. These were the first Indian mounds I saw as a kid, and I probably didn’t realize they were so unique. I did become interested in the mound-building cultures, and gradually came to realize that other groups built mounds that were higher and perhaps more impressive all along the Mississippi and its tributaries.

After spending some time with my family in Osage, Kim, Aidan, and I continued on our journey, this time to visit the headwaters of the Mississippi in Lake Itasca State Park. There we heard and saw a loon, biked along the lake, walked across the stones that span the river (placed there by Civilian Conservation Core workers in the Depression when the headwaters were ‘restored’ after a logging dam upstream had been removed), then waded back across to where we’d left our shoes. There in the Northwoods of Minnesota, the Mississippi seems much less powerful, more tame. It is hard to imagine the small stream it is at its head when you drive across it in Memphis or walk the bluffs in Natchez. And it is hard to imagine, when you’re wading across, that this insignificant stream will become the Father of Waters, a central channel for transportation, trade, and culture that has been the backbone of the continent for centuries.

I am reminded that Walter Ingliss Anderson carved a magnificent sculpture, almost a totem, that he titled The River or Father Mississippi. In the center stands a blue man with what appear to be antlers or the tributaries of the river emanating from his head. He is flanked by ducks on each side with a stag deer on the left and a possum, a crane, and other animals on the right. Most of the statue is gone, but a picture can be found in Christopher Mauer’s biography of Anderson, Fortune’s Favorite Child. I have often thought of writing a poem of the river to add to my Barrier Island Suite, which was inspired by Anderson’s logs. Traveling along the river this summer may give me ideas for how to begin.