Maastricht

On the 30th of August, we spent half a day in Maastricht, marking the first time I’ve left Belgium since the COVID-19 pandemic. We started the day with a guided tour of the North Caves in the St-Pieters hill, a bit to the south of the city. The first tour of day starts at 11 ‘o clock. We were a bit early, which allowed us to have a coffee and to walk around the ruin of  Fort St-Pieter, offering a nice view over the city’s skyline.

We were part of a small group of 13 people. The guide toured us for about an hour through the man-made labyrinth, showing us charcoal drawings on the walls and the vault created in second world war to protect art from the violence and destruction. Rembrandt’s The Night Watch was rolled up and stored there for three years. We had three lanterns, one for the guide, one for last person and I carried the third one in the middle of the group. Without the lanterns, logically, it’s pitch black which the guide let us experience for a brief moment, to the exaggerated horror of some. Incredible that people have worked in these corridors for centuries, carving marlstone and hauling it out of the depths. Today, there still is one mushroom farm operational.

13th century St. Servatius Bridge over the Meuse river.
The first fossil of a Mosasaurus was found in these caves.

We decided to keep the car parked at the Fort. With €6.50 for a day, it offers quite cheap parking compared to the downtown parking garages. and go on foot to our lunch reservation at Harry’s Restaurant in the city center on the other side of the Meuse river: a nice twenty-something minute walk, which led us along the Jeker river and the Nolens park.

At the restaurant, we stared with some oysters and choice three dishes. These are small/medium sized and the concept of this open kitchen restaurant is that you pick two to five courses out of seven options, to create your own multi-course experience. We settled on three courses each. Only our first course choice was different: gnocchi for me and Beef tataki for TingTing, followed by Red Snapper and Guinea Fowl for both of us. Great meal, very fine, delicious food. I heartily recommend this restaurant.

Saint Jan`s church (not the bookstore)

After lunch we walked the city center visiting the ‘most beautiful bookstore‘ located inside an old church, which is indeed quite nice, and enjoying the overall atmosphere of the city with lot’s of people strolling the shopping streets and enjoying food & drinks on the many terraces. Although these looked inviting, we had a hard deadline to meet with the closing time of our smallest son’s daycare. So we headed back to the car and back to Belgium.

A nice day, in a nice city.

Books of 2020

In 2020 I enjoyed the books listed below, an almost equal mix of fiction and non-fiction.

With four books in Dutch and two in French, 2020 is a high point for both languages, compared to other years of the last decade. I’ll try to continue reading at least one book in French every year.

Back in 2017 I read Alain Mabanckou’s ‘Black Moses’ in English, which was my introduction to this author. I’m very happy to have read this year his ‘Demain j’aurai vingt ans’ and ‘Les cigognes sont immortelles’ in their original language. Both books I heartily recommend.

The best work of fiction I’ve read in 2020 is a Dutch classic: Harry Mulisch ‘De aanslag’. A book which is very to the point and that leaves the reader impressed. In English, I was impressed by An Yu’s debut novel ‘Brased Pork‘, which has a Murakami vibe.

In the non-fiction section I found Amy Stanley’s ‘Stranger in the Shogun’s City’ a very interesting read and Kishore Mahbubani’s ‘Has China Won’ very insightful. The former a biography about a common woman’s life in 19th century Japan, the latter a different perspective on the geopolitical struggle between the USA and China.

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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’.

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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:

In the old city
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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.