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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.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Finals Week

Final exams are over, and Phil has finished grading his students' tests and papers. It is time for our own finals.

Our final trip to Bruges, for example: Sister Biggie and husband Gary flew to Belgium the day after our return from Ireland. They visited our apartment, where we made them large quantities of Belgian food.

We took them to Dulle Griet, where they were sporting enough to try the giant Kwaks (though Biggie did not enjoy having the waiter take her shoe! And Phil had to finish the beers).

Because of their ridiculously huge quantity of luggage (and heavy luggage, too -- Aer Lingus nearly had to fly another plane over to carry it, apparently), they rented a car. With GPS, of course, which they promptly named Katrien. Katrien was not as good at her job as the Irish Brigit, though. She had a little trouble locating the actual position of the car, and then became quite incensed when we didn't follow her directions.

Still, we found Bruges. It was just as fabulous as on our other visits. And while you East Coasters were sweltering or cowering from the tornadoes and golf-ball sized hail (does it even come in other sizes?), we had sunshine and low 70s.

We revisited some sights (though it was all new to Biggie and Gary), and made it to the Chapel of the Holy Blood, which holds a vial of Christ's blood that is taken out every day from 2 to 4. That part we missed, though Phil and I've seen it before. But the Chapel is pretty spectacular, as befits a place where Christ's blood is kept.

We bought the necessities of life in Bruges: chocolates, lace, beer, waffles, frites. Then we drove on to Damme -- Katrien had improved -- and ate at the wonderful restaurant Siphon, where Kries and Annie had introduced us to eel.

Only since there were no Belgians watching, we had steak, which really was just as good.

Our final museum visit in Gent: the amazing Stad Museum, which details the history of the city. There's one room that's entirely a high-tech map. At last, at last, we sort of understand Gent's configuration of rivers and canals. Four rivers! Canals intersecting, linking, paralleling! No wonder we've spent five months getting hopelessly lost. 

The museum is in the old Bijloke abbey, and it contains some remarkable illuminated manuscripts, a beautiful dining hall, and the story of the city's Great Theft of the 1930s -- the stealing of two of the panels from the Van Eyck Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in St. Bavo Cathedral. Only one panel was ever recovered.

Our final trip to Brussels. 
Bruegel the Elder
We went to admire the Bruegels at the Musee des Beaux Arts.

Bruegel the Younger

The occasional Lucas Cranach

And some Bosch apocalypticism
Visited the Beer Museum on the Grand Place. Ate train-station waffles.

Had drinks at A La Mort Subite, a cafe from the 1920s where Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Stein wouldn't have looked out of place.

Moules and waterzooi, of course

Dined at 't Kelderke.

We still have our final meals with Jo and with Kries and Annie to anticipate. And should I get too sentimental about it all, I have only to remember the conversation I had today with a woman at our local park:

She: That mother duck had four or five ducklings with her the other day.
I, pointing: Maybe they're over there?
She: No. Probably the rats ate them.

Oh well.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs

On our last day in Ireland, we traveled around the countryside. Gary picked us up and somehow squeezed us into the van with the other four, making seven altogether. He and his GPS, which he'd named Brigit, successfully guided us through the lush farmland, absolutely teeming with sheep, to Powerscourt Manor, an enormous estate known for its gardens.

A day of dappled seaborne clouds

The interior was nearly bare, but the views down the gardens and across to the Wicklow Mountains were spectacular.

We walked past fountains and ponds, down the pebbled pathways to the Japanese garden.

There were walled areas and a huge sweep of greensward.

We found a rose garden.

O, the wild rose blossoms
On the little green place.

There was a gnome in a tree.

Save the trees of Ireland for the future men of Ireland on the fair hills of Eire, O.

Some hand sanitizing occurred.

 Is this the day for your monthly wash?

After lunch outside -- the rain graciously held off -- we shoehorned ourselves back into the van and headed for Glendalach. It's a ruined monastery whose earliest buildings date from the 7th century.

Set beside a wide stream in a valley of the Wicklow Mountains, it's an enchanting site. The perfectly preserved tall conical towers from the 11th century are unique.

Glory be to God they had no idea it was that high.

We admired the ancient 7th century St. Kevin's church.

The ruined cathedral still had remnants of early Romanesque windows.

The monastery was surrounded by gravestones. Inscriptions from as far back as the 1600s were still readable; many other stones were so old they'd been eroded beyond legibility.

Cemetery put in of course on account of the symmetry.

Finally, Brigit guided us back to the airport. The others weren't leaving until the following day, but they were kind enough to drop us off. We found the airport extremely user-friendly: efficient, full of helpful people, and offering free samples of Irish whiskey in the duty-free. In fact, all of Ireland that we saw seemed efficient and full of helpful people. And I have no doubt that if we'd asked, most of them would have given us free samples of Irish whiskey.

The tradition of genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality, which our forefathers have handed down to us and which we in turn must hand down to our descendants, is still alive among us.

JJ's death mask
(Yes, enough Joyce, I know. I promise.)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Dear Dirty Dublin

After Phil's (very wet) stint at the conference in the morning, we set out on the bus to visit the sights of Dublin. It's a lovely city, well-signed as our museum curator friend would say, in both English and Gaelic. How many Irish people actually speak Gaelic? (Wait, I'm googling. Now I know. It is called Irish in Ireland, not Gaelic, and everyone is taught it in school.)

On the bus ride in to town from our hotel, the Stillorgan (NOT a Joycean pun, but it became a Sicker pun), we noticed the beautiful painted doors for which Dublin is justly known. One cab driver later told us that the Georgian houses that boast the doors are strictly regulated in terms of structural and design changes; the owners' indivduality can really only be expressed through the color of their front doors.

We stopped first at Trinity College, in the center of town. The library holds the 8th century Book of Kells, which I've longed to see since my college medieval art course. It includes the four gospels, gloriously illuminated by Celtic monks. Two pages of the actual Book are on view at any one time, one with an illumination, one with text. Since the monastery that housed it was raided and destroyed by invasion and fire dozens of times over the centuries, the manuscript's very existence is pretty much a miracle.The exhibit was impressive, as was the library's long hall. The manuscripts on view in the hall included William Caxton's 1480 printing of Lord Rivers' Sayinges and Dictes of the Philosophers, a book that actually makes an appearance in my historical children's novel, so I was doubly thrilled.

We walked through Dublin Castle and saw the Royal Chapel, and then went on to the Chester Beatty Library, home to an astonishing group of illuminated texts from the Near and Far East (are you sensing a theme here?) collected by a wealthy American industrialist with Irish roots.

A quick trip back to the Stillorgan, and then we went to the Auld Dubliner pub in the Temple Bar section of town to meet the four Sicker sisters -- Biggie, Di, Pooh, and Nita -- and one husband, Gary, who'd survived driving around Ireland for four days in a large van on the wrong side of very small roads. The pub advertised live music, but sadly it turned out to be loud and bad renditions of Johnny Cash, Rolling Stones, and Coldplay, and the food was mediocre. Though the Guinness was good.

We strolled around town for a while in the evening, admiring the Liffey and its bridges. Then we had to sprint to get the relatives onto the train to their B&B (an odd place, apparently, whose proprietress insisted they wear special socks indoors) with plans to meet at the Stillorgan in the morning.

Saturday was Bloomsday, as I'm sure you're all aware. Possibly the most important day in literature. Or, according to Phil, in the history of the world. We didn't have the energy to do Leopold Bloom's 12-mile round that goes from 8 a.m. till the wee hours, so our abbreviated version, in the rain, started with dropping Biggie, Gary, and Pooh off at the Book of Kells and walking to 7 Eccles Street, where Bloom begins his day in Ulysses.

We passed costumed nutcases celebrating the day.

We located the Dublin Rotunda, an 18th century exhibition space attached to a maternity hospital, important as a forum of dioramic spectacle in Phil's most recent book chapter on Ulysses.

To our surprise, we found a beautiful little memorial garden commemorating those who gave their lives in the struggle for Irish Independence. The statue is of the Children of Lir, an Irish version of the Wild Swans fairy tale.

We lunched at a very nice pub that used to be a bank and has been stunningly restored. Some Guinness was consumed.

Then we walked to Christchurch Cathedral, which oddly is Protestant and included some strange artifacts.

Next we visited Dublinia, a history museum exploring the Viking and medieval past of the city. Di was quite horrified by the lack of sanitation in those early days, but she received a brass rubbing from the Pope granting her a remission of four days in Purgatory for the sin of excessive hand sanitizing.

Our final touristic stop was the Guinness Storehouse, a gigantic museum/brewery, where we learned how the mother's milk of beers is brewed and had the opportunity to taste quite a bit of it. Then we took a horse-drawn carriage back to the center of town and found a pub with real Irish music and excellent food. Also some Guinness. Exhausted, we taxied back to the Stillorgan, where a wedding reception featuring a large number of extremely drunk (on Guinness?), portly bridesmaids in very short skirts and very high heels didn't keep us up for even a minute.