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Monday, July 9, 2012

Last Words

We're home! Or back, anyway. Our final night in Belgium was in the university town of Leuven, the Flemish half of the Catholic University of Leuven/Louvain. When the government decided to split the university in 1968, the Wallonians opened a new facility in Louvain-la-Neuve, taking half of everything including the library. And I mean half: two-volume works went Volume 1 to Leuven and Volume 2 to Louvain. Shows the difference between practical and sensible.

Anyway, Leuven is a pretty little city with a spectacularly ornate hotel de ville. We stayed near the Park Abbey (yes, more abbeys! This one was Norbertine, which has nothing to do with hermaphroditic dragons in Harry Potter but is a branch of Roman Catholicism that differs slightly in the wording of several rites). We had an excellent Italian meal in the town center -- with Belgian beers, of course, but there were no untried ones on the menu.

In the morning our flight took off on time and landed on time at JFK, where the temperature had hit 93. Our bags, crammed with beer and wine (as well as gifts and multiple items for ourselves, like our cereal bowls and beer glasses from the kringwinkel that will make us think of Gent each time we use them) made it through safely. We picked up Ben in the Bronx and arrived home by late afternoon. And since then it's been all unpacking, taking care of business, and getting horribly disfigured by a hornet sting. We'd forgotten what a dangerous place New York can be.

And so it ends, not with a bang but with a sting. No whimpering, though. We had a magnificent time. Remarkable. Transcendent. Delicious. I don't even have adjectives effusive enough to describe it.

We saw places new and old,

met with friends new and old,

ate dishes new and old,

drank beers new and old (but especially new).

Somehow, in a way I never managed on earlier trips, I was able to appreciate nearly every moment of our time away. Certainly part of it had to do with this blog: bringing you along on our adventures, seeing things through both my eyes and yours, made everything doubly intense, doubly rich. (It also made it much easier for my sievelike brain to remember what we did.) So thank you!

Now that we're back, I wish that I could continue to appreciate events this way. Not likely, with the press of daily life and responsibility -- it already feels like Gent was an experience outside of time, a five-month slice of life that existed on another plane entirely.

But I'll try. And when I feel like home doesn't begin to compare with the wonders of our months abroad, I'll do my best to recall what the little girl in the seat in front of me said (after screaming for two hours straight) as we began our approach into Kennedy: "Oh, New York is so beautiful! It's got bridges -- and everything!"

Bridges -- and everything.

I think that everything will probably be enough.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Travels with My Husband

Vacationing with Phil is rarely relaxing. It can be exciting, educational, exhilarating. It is always exhausting. It always involves getting lost multiple times. His itineraries are as ambitious as his syllabi -- there is no way you'll ever get it all done. I used to think vacations required a beach and a book. After nearly thirty years, I am used to the wild pace. Now I even enjoy it.

Burgundy was no exception. After our two whirlwind days of abbeys, chateaux, and winetasting, we spent another day at abbeys, chateaux, and winetastings. I could visit a chateau every day for a year and not get tired of them. Our first stop, though, was at a Cistercian abbey -- the Abbey of Fontenay. Yet another one founded by the tireless Bernard, this one even lovelier and more pristine than the last.

It was called Fontenay because it is located in an area of natural springs; in fact, it had to be drained over many years so the abbey could be built.

There's a stunning church, spare and stark, with an beautiful 13th century statue of Madonna and Child, the Christ child playfully pulling his mother's hair.

The Abbey has vast gardens and fountains, pools with giant trout whose ancestors were served to local noblemen, and a stream that ran a machine the monks invented to work the iron they mined from the cliffs behind the buildings.

There's a dormitory where the monks slept on pallets, and a dungeonlike room beneath where they incarcerated the locals when they misbehaved. What kinds of wickedness did they perpetrate to deserve such a grim punishment?

When we left the Abbey, we had a leisurely (by Phil's standards) lunch at an outdoor cafe, where we sat near two French women in stilettos and designer outfits, accompanied by the usual little yappy dog. They ate 3 courses with wine and espresso, while we had sandwiches and water. Then we went on to the fabulous Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin. Here, Roger de Bussy-Rabutin, "le plus celebre des libertins du Grand Siecle," lived after being exiled from the court of Louis XIV. A writer of cutting wit, he made the fatal error of penning a satire about the lives and -- especially -- the loves of the King and his courtiers. The work was never intended for publication, but one of the Count's many paramours sent it to Holland to be published and then distributed it to everyone at court. Furious -- particularly at the fact that the Count shared many of the King's lovers -- Louis banished him from court forever. (Other sources claim his disgrace was the result of taking part in an orgy during Holy Week. This is not in the official pamphlet.)

The chateau is, as its pamphlet says, "furnished with resentment." The rooms are filled with portraits of courtiers so the Count could feel as if his friends were still with him. The portraits in his bedroom are all of his lovers.

There is a special room where other lovers' pictures, each with a description (sometimes quite lubricious) hang. The ladies of court came to the chateau often to visit, and afterward they frequently sent a portrait as a gift. One gets the impression that the Count must have been very...talented.

We then traveled to Beaune, one of the wine centers of the region. It boasts a spectacular 15th century hospital, or Hotel Dieu, which Nicolas Rolin, chancelor of Burgundy, built in an attempt to ensure his entry into heaven.

Here, dozens of impoverished patients were treated -- bled, cupped, and more likely than not killed off by the doctors' lack of knowledge. Still, for the suffering poor, the place was far more luxurious than anything they'd experienced before (though often they were more than one to a bed).

The hospital includes a display of some pretty frightening medical instruments (and even scarier descriptions of how they were used). It has a chapel right in the sickroom, so the diseased could view marriages, baptisms, and funerals for their entertainment.

There was a kitchen and an extensive pharmacy, added later. We were amazed to learn that the hospital treated people until
the 1980s.

In the hospital museum, we viewed an remarkable triptych of the Last Judgment by the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden. Later, at dinner, a Flemish gentleman hinted that it had been stolen by the French and actually belonged to Belgium. In those days, though, Flanders was part of Burgundy, ruled over by the duke of Burgundy. So you can draw your own conclusions.

Stopping at a Beaune wine shop, we tasted 6 red wines offered by a young woman who was uninformed but liberal with the pour. They were all lovely, and we purchased yet another, deciding to ignore the fact that there was no place to pack it.

Our room at La Cimentelle
We rushed back to our hotel for dinner, which we shared with the aforementioned Flemish man and his family, a charming wife and their teenaged daughter, who had just finished high school and would be starting at the University of Gent in the fall. The food was extraordinary. We started with gougeres and cherry wine as an aperitif, then moved on to a light broth sprinkled with fresh peas. Floating among the peas were tiny raviolis stuffed with foie gras and chanterelles. It might be the best thing I've eaten in our five months abroad. Next came veal steaks in a champagne sauce, incredibly tender. The cheese course was extensive and delicious, and dessert was a sabayon with tropical fruits, topped off with macarons. All accompanied by a lovely pinot noir, and worth every calorie.

In the morning, we decided to drive through the Morvan National Park for a little nature to offset our excess of culture. We drove around a beautiful lake and hiked a bit, coming across a group roasting a whole pig on a spit. We didn't take pictures -- they were the French version of a biker gang, and we thought they might not take kindly to photos. And then we were off to Belgium, tired but replete in every way, to spend our last night in Leuven before taking a morning flight from Brussels back to the U.S.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

La Vie en...Burgundy

Some of you may wonder how it is that I can eat and drink in the outrageous quantities that I have been detailing -- for five months, nonstop -- without consequences. Well, the answer is, I can't. Morocco comes back to haunt my digestion every now and then, and after our amazing meal at La Cimentelle on our first night, I was...somewhat indisposed. But that did not keep me from continuing to indulge.

We've been driving from wine cave to chateau to cave to abbey to cave, through sun-soaked countryside thick with white butterflies. We visited Vezelay yesterday, a Unesco World Heritage site, perched on a hilltop and crowned with a medieval Romanesque basilica. It was founded by Bernard of Clairveaux, the originator of the Cistercian order who is responsible for building many abbeys throughout Burgundy.

The church is plain, pale, and austere, as the Cistercians wanted (they had broken away from those over-the-top, worldly Benedictines) and holds bones of Mary Magdelene. As a result it was an important pilgrimage site on the route to Santiago de Compostela. It was also the embarkation point for two crusades.

The town is beautiful too. In the home of pacifist writer Roman Roland, there is a collection of modern masterworks of art. It includes paintings and sculptures by Calder, Leger, Picasso, and others.

From there we headed to the medieval village of Noyers-sur-Serein, a picture-perfect, quiet little town with half-timbered houses and dwellings built into the towers that surround it.

Then it was time for wine tasting. We concentrated on Chablis, one of my favorites, stopping at a little cave where we tasted an amazingly affordable Petit Chablis, a regular Chablis, and a Premier Cru Chablis. Guess which was better? Guess which we bought?

After that we went to the Chateau de Tanlay, a sixteenth-century manor house with a wide moat and carved outbuildings. It has two remarkable features.

One is the Grand Gallery, whose walls and ceiling are completely covered with griseille painted trompe-l'oeil. The other is a secret tower room where the Hugenots met. Its walls are painted with a satirical scene in which all the political figures of the day are featured as gods and goddesses, some quite unclothed.

From Tanlay, we drove on through vineyards and fields of grain to Chablis, a pretty little town, where we tasted still more white wine at another cave. It was so good we had to get another bottle. (We have maybe enough room in our luggage for one.) And we saw the synagogue, which for some reason had tiny, Hobbit-sized doors.

We returned to our hotel, took a quick swim, and went into the nearby town of Avallon for dinner (I could not face another 4+ course dinner quite yet). We ate al fresco. The food was not as spectacular as at the hotel, but the quantities were human-sized.

So we are LOVING Burgundy. Stunning abbeys and chateaux without the crowds of the Loire Valley. Incredible food without Paris prices. Great wines without Bordeaux snobbery. Please, can we stay?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

On the Road Again

Saturday morning, we left Gent sadly in the brilliant sunshine and drove south to Redu, the village of books we were unable to view in the winter because it was Monday and everything was closed. This time it was summer, Saturday afternoon, and everything was open. Every second shop was a bookstore, most French books, mostly used, some antique. There was a preponderance of bound French-language comic books, which was odd. But some of the antique volumes were really beautiful, and there was a shop that made its own paper. It was the perfect place for us, although they didn't have any of my books. That may be because they aren't published in French editions. French publishers, are you listening?

We had a lovely lunch in a cafe where Phil discovered a beer -- St. Monon -- that he had not tried. Hey, are you surprised? I peeled the label off, of course, though the Wall O' Beer is no more. The fact that I had to do that worries me a little. What does he have in mind...?

On we drove in our little Ibizi (no, we never heard of it either), across the Luxembourg border to the Chateau de Vianden. This gorgeous castle is the ancestral home of the dukes of Luxembourg, who are from the lineage of Orange, as in William of.

 I now know why William and Mary became king and queen of England -- through not only his ancestry but hers. They were cousins whose parents were also cousins, all related to the Stuart line of monarchs. That's an awful lot of interbreeding...

After Vianden, we decided we needed some exercise, so we drove to Gorge des Loups on the German border. Our hike took us through some gigantic rock formations, and we walked up and up the steps of a steep gorge to glorious views of the countryside. Well, Phil did. Remembering how I crippled myself in Croatia climbing 400 stairs up a bell tower, I stopped halfway up. I do sometimes learn from my mistakes.

Then onto the big roads and past Luxembourg City to Dudelange, which I picked as a stopover mostly because of its silly name. It's a nice little town, though our hotel was opposite the church and next to a rowdy tavern, and it was Saturday night. No rest for the weary -- but an excellent dinner of summer vegetable soup, veal prepared two ways, and chocolate mousse, washed down with Luxembourgish wine.

Sunday we were off early (those church bells!) to France. It was supposed to be rainy, but the sky turned mostly sunny by early afternoon. We drove through pastoral landscapes, paying large sums of money to the French for the use of their peage, which refused to accept our credit cards.

When we got off the highway on the way to our hotel, my desperate search for a toilette brought us accidentally to the Abbey of Pontigny, which we hadn't actually planned on seeing.

It was a remarkably preserved 12th century structure, impressively high for a Romanesque church, and dramatically stark and undecorated. Phil couldn't even make fun of me for having to stop, it was such a pleasing surprise.

We tried to stop for a degustation of Burgundian wine, but apparently on Sundays, one needs an appointment. Really, Burgundy? When better to drink wine than a Sunday? So we went straight on to our hotel, which turned out to be another lovely surprise.

I'd read that it was an old cement factory, with a swimming pool built "on top of the factory," and assumed this was a strange lexicological error. In fact, it is a gorgeous estate once belonging to the owner of a cement factory, now lovingly restored by his descendants, who also happen to be first-class chefs.

We swam in the pool, which is indeed built on top of the now-defunct factory, and walked through the nearby fields of corn and wheat. Then it was time for dinner with the other guests: a British couple, soon to be newlyweds, a French couple, both scientists, one pregnant, and a Belgian couple from Flanders, not far from Gent. Everyone was kind enough to speak English. We ate an extraordinary four-course meal, wines included, of snails in pastry shells (the amuse-bouche), egg poached in Burgundy sauce, "wife of the duck" in whiskey sauce, six cheeses, and molten chocolate cake. With macaroons.

It's a good thing I left my scale in Gent.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Tot Ziens! À Bientôt!

The Final Wall O' Beer. With thanks to Jo,
Ben, Biggie, Gary, Kries, Annie, Klauser, and Sue for their
aid in acquisition and consumption
It's our last post from Belgium. I know you all would like to express your heartfelt sorrow at the ending of our five fabulous months of excess. You feel our pain. You wish we could stay forever. We are grateful for your sympathy. And our credit card company shares your feelings.

We will close out our time in Gent with a few photos of nearby sights that are part of our daily lives, the oddities and beauties that we will miss the most.
Our balcony at Home Heymans

St. Pieters, the Scheldt. Home Heymans
Best quattro formaggio pizza ever

Sphinxes near St. Pietersplein

Wanted to fit this in our luggage. Too big.

Site of many fine film viewings (and also The Avengers)
Largest DVD shop in Europe. Saw all 5
seasons of The Wire -- again

Amorous ibexes on our evening walk

Barge cafe where many labels were peeled

The tower of the evil dwarf (see May 5 post)

Our favorite Gent fountain
Waterfall in Citadel Park

In an alcove at the Combreen Institute
Secret vineyard behind St. Pieters (are the priests
making their own wine?)

I don't know what this is, but Phil likes it

But don't despair. We'll be in Luxembourg and Burgundy for the next five days, attempting to drown our sadness in a sea of Chablis. And, of course, blogging about it.