Books of 2019

In 2019 I’ve enjoyed the below books.

I’ve completed the fifth and final book of Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢) and can lay this Chinese classic to rest, although BaoYu and DaiYu will stay with me for quite some time.

My favorite book of the year is A Gentleman in Moscow: a truly great read!

I can also recommend Marguerite Duras’s L’Amant to improve ones French.

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Books of 2018

In 2018 I’ve enjoyed the below books.

After reading ‘Journey to the West’ and ‘Water Margin’ in previous years, I started on another of the great Chinese classics:  The Story of the Stone, or Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢), as it is better known. I rate it much higher then the other two, a true masterpiece. It does not feel outdated or repetitive like the others sometimes do.  However, I still have one volume to go, the final twenty chapters.

I’ve also read some interesting non-fiction about the past, present and future of solar energy and about the history of the legendary ship ‘Endeavour’.

blog_vn_wpbooklist_jre_2018

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巴塞罗那

今天中午我们坐飞机来巴塞罗那。我们坐飞机差不多两个小时。巴塞罗那的天气比比利时的天气好更暖和。我们的旅馆在市中心。 它很现代,很舒服。在旅馆我们休息一下儿。之后我们在旅馆对面的饭馆吃饭了。我们吃了海鲜饭。很好吃。太阳落山的时候我们沿着海散步。这是美好的晚上。

今天中午在广场喝咖啡。我们看看高迪的建筑。建筑的名字是巴特洛之家。很有意思,很特别。我们很幸运因为人不太多。我们不用等。之后我们看看圣家堂可是我们没进去。下午我们去沙滩,人也不太多。风很大。在太阳下很舒服。

今天中午我们爬山。这个山的名字是montjuic。在那儿有很多奥林匹克的体育馆。在那儿也有joan miro美术馆。很有意思的画儿。在山上可以看到整个城市。下午我们和十六个人跟着导游散步了两个半小时。导游是美国人。他住在巴塞罗那九年了。他告诉我们很多城市的历史。

第四天在巴塞罗那我们散步了很长时间。我们去了高迪公园。我们走了两个小时期间喝了咖啡。在高迪公园每半个小时四百个人可以进去。但是我们进去的时候人不太多,因为是淡季。在高迪公园我们看到了很美丽的景色。晚上我们去看了一个很有意思的西班牙的演出。三个男人弹吉他,一个男人和一个女人跳弗拉明戈舞。他们的表演很精湛。

两个小时之后我们坐飞机回去比利时。比利时比巴塞罗那冷十度。现在我们在机场等飞机。这个旅行很美好。可能我们会再回来。

Plitvice

昨天我们去了plitvice,十六湖国家公园。这个公园有很美的湖和很多的瀑布 。我们沿着湖散步了四个小时。天气很好,可是十六湖比Zadar冷一点儿。空气很新鲜。

Split

From Mostar we drove to the Croatian city of Split, on the Adriatic coast. It took us about three hours. Halfway the journey,  when we had just reached the recently build moterway A1, rain started pouring down heavily. This was the first rain we encountered in a week of travelling. I was releaved it didn’t rain while we were driving on the small roads in Bosnia. Around three in the afternoon we arrived in Split, where we would stay for two nights in Stambuk, a guesthouse near the old centre. The lady operating the guesthouse met us,in the street, got into our car and showed us were we could park for free. The room was nicely decorated but the bed was a bit shaky. I had to fix the slatted base of the bed several times during our stay. This could be due to my weight though. She recommended a restaurant called Fife not far from the old city, along the water front. We tried it in the evening and had some black risotto, fried squid and a local meat dish. It’s not great but also not expensive.

The old center of Split is partly build inside the ruins of the ancient palace of Roman Emperor Diocletian and I was curious to see it. The ruins are nice but I imagined Split to be larger, with more things to see. You can easily visit it in an afternoon. Maybe I feel like this because of the weather: grey with the occasional rain shower. I was more charmed by Dubrovnik, and had the feeling I could stay there for a longer period enjoying the sights and city.

The highlights of Split:

Statue of bishop Grgur Ninski in front of the Golden gate of the palace
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Mostar

Looking back, I believe that the civil war in former Yugoslavia was one of the first world events I was aware of as a child. I still remember some images of it, that I saw in the news. For me, a symbol of that war is the destruction of the Old Bridge, or Stari Most, in Mostar. So when we were planning a trip along the Dalmatian coast, I wanted to make a small detour to include a visit to Mostar and see its famous bridge, which was reconstructed in 2004.

Stari Most
Stari Most or Old Bridge, Mostar

We rented a car, a white Seat with stickers “try me” on the sides, in Dubrovnik and drove to Mostar. We didn’t had a say in the brand, colour or stickers.

Ston
The wall of Ston

Along the way we stopped in the Trsteno Arboretum and Ston, a small town renowned for its oysters and wall, also dubbed the European Great Wall. I must say that while walking on it and climbing the hill it was build along, reminded me of my trip to China and the real Great Wall. A big difference is that the wall in Ston is only around five kilometres long, and thus falls a bit short in the comparison. The oysters however are really good.
The journey from Ston to Mostar is about ninety kilometres but it took us a little over two hours. The shortest route includes three border crossings and a highway, we decided to keep it with one border crossing and take a scenic route from Neum to Mostar, driving on smaller roads through the mountaines landscape. It was beautiful and quite lonely, since we hardly saw other cars. A little after six in the evening we passed the city limits of Mostar.

The guesthouse where we stayed for two nights is on the east bank of the River Neretva, in a narrow one way street. It took us a bit of effort to find, but it has a very central location, close to the interesting parts of the city. A young couple is operating the guesthouse and we were welcomed by the woman of the couple. She gave us some maps and told us how to get to the different sights. I found her genuinely friendly and helpful. The room was simple but ok, with a comfortable soft bed and good, hot shower. I really recommend this place if you’re looking for a place to stay in Mostar.

At this time of year there are not that many tourists in Mostar, it’s not empty, but its less crowded than Dubrovnik. Maybe we were lucky, but the weather was great: blue sky and sunshine with temperatures going up to 28 degrees.

Mostar is special in multiple aspects. It’s skyline contains the minarets of mosques and the towers of churches. Some houses still bear the marks of the war while others are renovated. On average the cars are older than in Western Europe. You notice that it’s a poorer city than Dubrovnik, Split or Zadar. But the people are really friendly. I’ve felt it not only in our guesthouse but also in a bar or in a small shop. The shopkeepers of the many souvenier stalls are also not pushy. Things are cheaper in Mostar: ice cream for 0,50€ a scoop, 2,5€ for half a litre beer with a view on the Stari Most, 40€ for two nights in our guesthouse.

Ten kilometres to the southeast of Mostar is a small village called Blagaj. It is located at the spring of the buna river and is known for the Blagaj Tekjia, a Sufi lodge built around 1520 and now a national monument. The house can be visited and is quite nice.

The highlights of Mostar:

Sejh Jujino Turbe, tomb of Mostar writer Mustafa Ejubovic, built in 1831
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The Isle of Lopud

今天我们坐渡船去Lopud。它是一个距离Dubrovnik五十分钟的岛。lopud不大。lopud有很多小的老教堂。我们散步去一个海滩,可是我们没有游泳。因为我们没有带游泳衣。在海滩我们喝了一杯很好喝的奶昔。我们徒步了一圈。我们看到了几只蜥蜴和一条蛇。我们没有一张蛇的照片因为蛇跑的很快。

Romeo and Juliet @ The Garrick

On Saturday the 18th of June I traveled by Eurostar to London together with a friend. It would be a short stay, only the weekend itself. Our main purpose was to see a play: we had tickets for Romeo and Julliet at the Garrick Theatre.

Although it was the middle of June, it wasn’t summer yet. The temperature  was cool but pleasant,  around 18 to 20 degrees. We walked from St. Pancras station to the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square. There was some festival taking place on the square. It looked like fun, but we ignored it since there was a huge queue to enter it. A queue that went on for several blocks, so we entered the Gallery instead. Part of the impressionist wing is still closed for renovation, but Van Gogh’s Sunflowers can be admired. We didn’t stay long since we’ve both visited the museum several times already, we just went to see our favorites again, such as Rubens’ A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning.

Belgium’s football team, the Red Devils, played against Ireland in the afternoon as part of the European Championship. Since we’re both avid fans we looked for a pub near Leicester Square to watch the match, and to have lunch. It was steak & ale pie for me, fish & chips for my friend. We flushed down the decent food with beer and cider. The television was acting odd at times, maybe a lagging satellite connection: moving players became a bit blurred and had 8 legs. Belgium crushed Ireland with a 3-0 victory. Giving us (idle) hope for the matches to come and putting us in a very good mood.

After the match we went south, crossed the river Thames and headed to our hotel: the Westminster Tune Hotel. It’s the third time I stay there. Many services are available as an option (early check-in, WiFi, hairdryer,…) and if you select them, you pay for them. But if you are satisfied with the minimum, it’s quite cheap. We had a decent and clean room that was also small and windowless. Next to the hotel there is a pub: The Horse and Stable. We went there for dinner and WiFi. While we ate a tasteful ‘house burger’ we watched the first half of Iceland – Hungary. We didn’t see the second half because we needed to get to the theater in time for the play.

We walked back north to the Garrick Theatre, which is near Leicester Square, were we spend the afternoon. The doors closed at 19h30 and not a second late. We would see Romeo and Juliet in a direction of Kenneth Branagh with Richard Madden as Romeo, Lily James as Juliet and Derick Jacobi as Mercutio. The play has a duration of 2 hours and 45 minutes including a 15 minute break. I found it a very powerful performance. At times I didn’t understand all the words, but that did not lower my experience. Juliet did not grab me as much as Romeo. But overall, it was very good and I enjoyed it very much. The decor and costumes are set in the 1950’s and the stage changes smoothly from square, church, crypt to balcony. Next to me was an unoccupied seat, next to it was a thirty-something year old  guy sitting. He used the space of the seat to store several drinks on the ground. He joked that everyone should have an extra seat for storage. I wondered if he was serious and had booked an extra seat. He had two pints of beer for himself during the first half, and came back after the break with two more. Twenty minutes into the play came the answer when a young women rushed to the seat, moving so fast that I could not prevent her tripping over some of the stored pints.

After the play we headed towards the hotel and stopped by the Duke of Sussex, near The Old Vic, for a drink. We had been to this pub in November 2014, but in the mean time it had changed, there was no karaoke anymore. When we remarked this while we were standing outside looking in, a passer-by overhearing us, burst into laughter. We had some local craft beer and we were discussing the play when we got into a conversation with a slightly drunk Englishman, who was part of a party sitting next to us.  He wanted to speak German with us, thinking we were speaking German and not realizing we were speaking Dutch. We talked about differences between Dutch and German and explained that Dutch speakers are not necessarily Dutch, his next assumption, but that they can also be Belgian. This being England, the pub closed at 23u30, and we continued towards our hotel.

We chose an excellent timing to visit London. It was the opening weekend for the new wing of Tate Modern and because of this there were several volunteers giving talks about their favorite art pieces in the museum. The old power station turned into a modern art museum is very stylish. I quite like the architecture of the concrete and lines and prefer it above Paris’ Centre Pompidou. We saw the free collections in both wings and listened to some interesting stories. My favorite story was about Dali’s Autumnal Cannibalism. On the top floor (level 10) Tate Modern offers a nice and free view of the London skyline. The viewing platform of the Shard is a bit higher, but costs around 20 pounds.

We crossed the Millennium bridge to St Paul’s Cathedral, and headed to the British Museum. On the way we lunched in The White Swan where we had the Sunday Roast Beef and I had a Fourpure Session IPA to drink.

Sunday Roast

Season IPAThis London craft beer is quite fruity. It’s a bit strange for me to see a beer that’s only available in draft or can, not in bottles. I found it tasteful and it went well with the roast.

After the lunch we continued to the British Museum. Before we could enter the museum we had to pass through a security check where all big bags were searched. I have the feeling that the definition of a big bag is dependent on the size of the queue. We didn’t stay very long in the museum, we focused on  some special items. My favorite part of the museum is the Japanese section on the top floor. No only for the displayed items, but also for some practical reasons. Since it’s the furthest to reach, it’s less busy then other parts, such as the Roman or Egyptian sections and it’s also a bit darker and cooler.

Time flies, and we didn’t have a lot of it to start with. We left the museum and  headed towards St Pancras. On the way we stopped in a Starbucks for coffee and cake and reminisced a bit about all the things we’d seen. It was an excellent weekend.

Click here for the Guardian Review of Romeo and Juliet.

Weekend in Lisbon

To break away from weekly routine, we went to Lisbon for a weekend. Ryanair flew us there from Brussels in a little less than three hours, a short delay included. Since Portugal is in a timezone to the west of Belgium, the travel time was reduced with an hour. Borrowed time which we would pay it back on the way home. Before setting in the final descend, the plane took a wide turn over Lisbon and the river Tagus, giving us a beautiful view on the city and its landmarks. The view gave us hope of nice weather, but rain greeted us when leaving the plane. The rest of the day downpours would interchange with sunny moments. We arrived in the Lux Lisboa Park hotel shortly before noon, a few hours before checkin time. We couldn’t get our room key yet but handled the administration and left our luggage in safekeeping. We were ready to explore the city.

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We asked the receptionist if she could recommend a nearby restaurant for lunch. After she suggested an Italian one and a quality burger restaurant, we clarified that we preferred a Portugese restaurant to try the local cuisine. And that’s how we ended up in O Cubo, a little family owned restaurant two streets from the hotel. IMG_0130 We had Pastéis de nata, olives and bread with a Portugese sheep cheese for starters followed with fish and squid as the main courses. We concluded with some local liquors of the house, such as ginjinha and porto! Good food, friendly staff and not expensive.

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The hotel is not far from the Praça Marques de Pombal and from it we went south in the direction of Praça Luís de Camõese, where we would join a free walking tour through the city. Midway the Avenue da liberdade we took shelter from another downpour at a hotel. When we arrived at the square there was still some time left before the tour would start, so we sat down at the terrace of a bakery and had a pao de deus and a coffee. I really love this bread! The free walking tour is a tip based tour without commitment that takes around three hours and has a bit of an alternative vibe. From the square we and eight others were guided through the Baito Alto area, which is the nightlife borough filled with wine bars and pubs. Next we headed to Largo do Carmo, a pretty square with a lot of history. It was the focal point of the Carnation Revolution of 1974: the dictator Marcelo Caetano took refuge in the military police station until he surrendered. Next to the police station is the ruin of  the Carmo Convent, which stands as a witness to the 1755 earthquake that destroyed two thirds of the city and killed a fifth of it’s inhabitants. IMG_0090 At the back of the convent we had a beautiful view over the city. We took the stairs down and headed towards the Praça do Comércio, a big open square at the river side that was the entry to the city from the sea for the nobility. Next we were guided through the narrow streets of Lisbon’s oldest district: Alfama. It’s a maze and without a guide we could easily get lost in it. It’s not a rich place, but is beautiful in a nostalgic sense. We were offered a glass of ginjinha by a local lady and an old man started talking to us about the different plants on his balcony. Gabriella was our guide, a young Brazilian woman who lived in Lisbon for the past four years. She did an excellent job and I can recommend this tour. The tour concluded a bit after six and although we had an extensive lunch, we were more than ready for dinner. We headed back to the Praça do Comércio and took the ferry across the Tagus to Cacilhas. All public transport in Lisbon can be accessed with a green cardboard, rechargeable pass. The card itself costs 80 cents and each trip 1,80. Recharging can we done at machines or in most newspaper kiosks. During the boat trip sunset passed into dusk, and we left the ferry in the night. IMG_0081 Just outside the ferry arrival there is a seafood restaurant named Farol. We had a big plate of scrimp, cooked scrimp, clams, crab and lobster, combined with oven roasted bread. A fresh feast. Tired from waking and travelling, we were ready to conclude the evening, so we hopped on the ferry back and walked to our hotel, were a very modern room with a huge comfy bed greeted us.

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The next day we rose early to get the most out of our second and last day in Lisbon. We checked out, left the luggage at the hotel in safekeeping and walked to the Praça da Figueira, where we would take tram 15 to Belém. On the way to the tram we had breakfast: Pastéis de nata, pao de deus with cheese and ham, coffee and fresh orange juice.

Belém houses two world heritage sites: Belém tower and the Jerónimos Monastery. IMG_0070 From the tram stop we walked along the shore to the tower. We didn’t visit the tower, only admired it from the outside. In front of the monastery there was a long queue so we decided to skip it. I’ve heard it’s not that great, but next to it, there is something that is: Pastéis de Belém, the most renowned pastry shop of Lisbon. IMG_0061 And I must admit, they make them really tasty. We ate the pastéis in front of a Thai temple, a gift for 500 years of bilateral relationships. In a souvenir shop, the Indian (guess) shopkeeper recognized us speaking Dutch. He knew Leuven and had friends in Poperinge: the world gets smaller. We waited for a tram to take us back to the center of the city together with the same people with whom we’d taken shelter at a hotel from a downpour the previous day. We picked up our luggage at the hotel and took the bus too the airport where at around five a plane took off to take us home.

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I would love to return to this city, to see more of it and to eat more of its food.

Nord de France

During the heat wave of early July 2015 we decided to ditch the scorching weather in Belgium and head for a weekend to the coolness of the coastline of the north of France. Just before lunch on Saturday we arrived in Boulogne-sur-Mer on the Côte d’Opale. We walked in the fishing harbor along the quays towards Nausicaä, one of the largest public aquariums of Europe, where we saw among others: sharks, sea lions, a lot of jellyfish and African penguins.

Garibaldi
Garibaldi

We were in between sea lion shows and decided not to wait for the next occurrence. But opted instead for some relaxing on the sand beach besides the aquarium. There were other people sun bathing and playing in the water but it was not overcrowded like the Belgian beaches. After a while we headed to the old center of the city. The medieval walls are preserved and you can walk upon them, giving quite a view of the surroundings. Within the fortification a castle and 12th century belfry can be found, along with many restaurants and bars; in one of which we had galettes as a late lunch.

Boulogne-sur-Mer
Boulogne-sur-Mer

Some thirty kilometers north of Boulogne-sur-Mer one can find Cap Griz Nez. The cliffs of this cape are the closest point of France to England and it is said that on a clear day one can see the white cliffs of Dover. Unfortunately, on both occasions that I was on these cliffs, I failed to spot England.

We continued our trip by heading south, to Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, a small village at the mouth of the Somme river. It was here that William the Conqueror amassed his troops before crossing the English Channel in 1066. The village is quite lovely, as are its surroundings and the river specifically. Our trip, and our coming here, were impulsive actions, so we did not have any hotel reservation. This village has far more touristic appeal, and is far smaller than Boulogne and it quickly became apparent that we would not find a place to stay the night. TripAdvisor showed us that there were virtually none, except some very expensive, rooms available in a 35km radius. So we drove to Amiens, a large city at an hour drive, with enough availability and booked a room in the Ibis hotel near the cathedral. TripAdvisor ranked the Chinese restaurant next door as the 3th best of the city, on a total of 241. As I see it, there are several possibilities, two of which are that they bought the ranking or that they treat tourists differently. This was a culinary low point.

The following day we returned to Saint-Valery-sur-Somme but by the time we got there, the weather had shifted. Dark clouds were gathering and not long thereafter heavy rains started pouring down. We walked towards the Place des Pilotes, next to the Somme river, with umbrellas shielding us from the downpour. On this square Le Mathurin is located, this fish restaurant only has a few tables outside on a covered terrace and a limited menu written with chalk on a slate but its quality is divine. We started with oysters and a salad of squid tentacles followed by turbot as the main dish, the best fish dish I’ve ever tasted. While thunder roared and the streets got soaked by rain, we enjoyed a lovely conclusion to our short weekend out.

Turbot - Le Mahurin
Turbot – Le Mahurin