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.
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.
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.
On Saturday the 23 of May the plane carrying my father and me landed at Domodedovo airport, which is Moscow’s, and Russia’s, largest airport. We had arrived for a thirteen day trip to Russia in which we would visit the cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. A stern woman stared at my passport and at my face, after which she stamped my visa and admitted me to the Russian Federation. The airport is about 40 km to the southeast of Moscow center but there is a direct train, the Aeroexpress, from the airport to the Paveletsky Rail Terminal, from which there is access to the Moscow metro. The metro stations are very beautiful, some of them are real pieces of art. There is quite some security present, and this could explain why I did not notice any vandalism or graffiti.
We took the metro to Kuznetskiy Most and then walked ten minutes to our hotel: the Budapest Hotel, not the Grand Budapest, but close enough. The hotel is incredibly long: our room was on the fifth floor and after exiting the elevator we had to walk around 200m in the corridor before reaching our room. The room was spacious with two beds and a sofa, it had air-co and a TV of the old days, a pre-flat screen model, but I was not planning on spending much time in the hotel room, except for sleeping. The hotel has an excellent location: it’s only a short walk to the heart of Moscow: the Red Square.
We passed the Bolshoi Theater, the big statue of Karl Marx on the Revolution square and reached the statue of Marshal Zhukov, the commander of the Red Army during the Second World War, who stands before the State Historical Museum, which is on the western side of the Red Square. We entered the square and I found it smaller than I had imagined. It’s still impressive though, with the Kremlin wall and the Spasskaya Tower with its clocks on the southern side of the square, the GUM shopping center on the northern side, and finally with the awe inspiring St Basil’s Cathedral on the east side. There was a big podium on the square, which diminished slightly the appeal of it. We later learned the podium was intended for the festivities of the Day of Cyrillic Alphabet, which takes place each year on the 24th of May, and would remain on the square for the remainder of our visit.
We crossed the square, passed the cathedral and walked halfway over the bridge across the Moskva river, which gave us a nice view over Moscow. The Kremlin is fortified complex with several churches, museums, and government buildings such as the official residence of Russia’s president and the senate. The Kremlin has an enclosing wall with towers, and we walked along this wall from the river edge all the way back to Zhukov. The final part lead us through the Alexander gardens, with flower gardens, fountains and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, before reaching Zhukov.
Getting thirsty, we walked back to the hotel and midway found a place with beer and food. Back in the hotel we had a vodka in the bar and ended the evening with watching the Eurovision song contest on Russian TV.
The first evening gave us a favorable first impression of Moscow. On Sunday we noticed that the Red Square was blocked by police: the festival for Cyrillic language was being held on the square and entry was with tickets only, we saw a very long queue the day before. We walked along the GUM, which was also closed, but this because it wasn’t 10 o’clock yet, to a street lined with a series of churches, but they were all in scaffolding, hiding their domes from view.
We continued to the Kitai-gorod neighborhood and the Lubyanka Square, where the monument in remembrance for political prisoners is, looking on the yellow building of the old KGB and the gray building of its successor FSB. The monument consists of a stone from the Solovetsky islands, where prison camps of the Soviet Gulag system were located. We got an energy boost from a strong cup of coffee and walked north east towards the Clean Ponds. Until the beginning of the 18th century these ponds were called Dirty Ponds because local butchers polluted the ponds with waste until a prince acquired them in 1703, cleaned them out and renamed them to their current name.
There are a great many small churches in Moscow, almost in every street there is one, and many of them have references to Moscow’s patron saint Saint George, the dragon slayer. This image is also the coat of arms and is on the flag of Moscow. From the ponds we followed the green boulevard westward in the direction of the Tverskoy neighborhood.
We passed the statue in honor of Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaya and when crossing the street we saw on a building in the intersecting street a large mural dedicated to Ivan Leonidov, a Russian architect and artist. We visited along the way the High Monastery of St Peter, which was a bit run down and in need of renovation. But on a happy side note, there were several cats sleeping in its garden. Across the street from the monastery is the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, with its freely accessible courtyard with statues. Where the street of the monastery and museum crosses the boulevard, we found a restaurant and had a beef Stroganoff. First on the terrace outside, later fleeing from the rain inside. Once the rain had diminished, we headed a bit north to the Hermitage gardens where a small rock concert was being held.
Rain started pouring down again and we took shelter under a doorway. Once the worst had passed, I bought from a stand, and from the looks of it run by some young people to raise some money for an event, a freshly baked waffle on a stick and had it dipped in hot chocolate and sprinkled with grounded coconut. Yummy. We walked back to the boulevard and continued along it until we reached the statue for the poet Alexander Pushkin.
Pushkin and his lover Natalia are still very popular in Russia and there are a great many statues dedicated to them. Around Pushkin’s statue people were dancing in couples some classical dance. From Pushkin we broke from the ring way and headed east to the Patriarch’s Ponds.
At the entrance of the pond there is a bogus traffic sign, placed by an unknown person, dedicated to Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece The Master and Margarita, a book considered one of the great novels of the 20th century and of which I purchased a copy in St Petersburg. The sign has as accompanying text “Never talk to Strangers”, the title of the first part of the book. While my father and me were taking pictures of the traffic sign, we saw that other visitors started noticing this strange sign and also started taking pictures. It’s quite discretely placed and you don’t really notice that there’s an absurd sign, unless you know it’s there.
We continued south west, back to the ring way and to another square dedicated to Pushkin and Natalia, with a statue of the lovers and a large modern mural of Pushkin taking a selfie of him and his Natalia. A bit to the east of the square, you can find the Ryabushinsky Mansion, a house built by Russian architect Fyodor Schechtel, and the residence of writer Maxim Gorky after his return to the Soviet Union in 1932. The house houses a museum dedicated to the writer, but the architecture is much more interesting. The house was designed in it’s entirety, including the furniture. In order to avoid damaging the wooden floors, we had to were special slippers over our shoes. After leaving the house, we noticed the sky darkening and not much later heavy rains started coming down.
With haste we passed the TASS building, the Russian news agency, and headed in the direction of the Kremlin to visit the GUM, crossing the Alexander Gardens once more. This three story high luxury shopping center, with its three parallel galleries is marvelous, but I’m not really into luxury shopping centers.
After a vodka and a nap at the hotel, we returned to the Red Square around 11 o’clock in the evening, to see the red stars on the Kremlin towers lit up. The atmosphere of Moscow center does not change at night: tourists are walking around, without any security concerns.
On Monday we visited the Kremlin itself, after purchasing tickets in the Alexander Gardens we entered through the south gate and walked along the Amoury, skipping the jewels and 10 Fabergé eggs inside, and passed the Grand Kremlin palace towards the Cathedral Square.
The square is surrounded by six buildings of which three are cathedrals. It was used for the coronation of the tsars and is still used for the inauguration of the Russian president. We visited the different cathedrals and churches and continued by strolling through the Kremlin gardens. When crossing the square separating the cathedrals and the garden, you have to follow an L shaped zebra crossing, if you cut corners or divert from the sidewalk at another location, one or several of the many traffic police agents start blowing their whistles, until the offender corrects his erroneous ways. We heard a lot of whistling, many of it directed at groups of senior Chinese tourists.
We left the Kremlin through the Spasskaya Tower to the Red Square and visited St Basil’s Cathedral. Sadly the main church was being renovated, but the crypt and the side churches were visitable. I found it a claustrophobic experience wit a lot of small rooms connected to each other and low ceilings. In one of the rooms we found a 5 men choir singing Orthodox church music. Quite a special experience, my father bought a CD of them. As lunch we had some beer at our regular spot and afterwards walked the street towards Tverskaya street and headed north towards city hall.
On the other side of the big street from city hall there is a small park tucked away with a statue of Lenin. Ironically Lenin sits next to one of the most expensive shopping streets of Moscow.
We headed to the statue of Pushkin that we saw the day before with the dancing and followed the ring way boulevard south to the Arbat neighborhood. The car free New Arbat street is very touristic with a lot of shops and bars. My father bought a Russian flag hat in one of the shops. At the corner of New Arbat and Arbatskiy we found a good looking terrace with an even better looking red headed waitress. We had a bowl of borscht and a pint of beer on the terrace. We continued westwards in New Arbat street and found the only graffiti in the city: the Tsoi wall at the intersection of New Arbat and Krivoarbatsky Lane, which is dedicated to Russian rock pioneer Viktor Tsoi who died in 1990.
A bit further in Krivoarbatsky Lane there is a building in modern architecture style and further in New Arbat we found another statue of Pushkin and Natalia.
Looking back in the street we saw in the distance a large mural of Marshal Zhukov. At the end of the street there is one of the Seven Sisters, as the seven Soviet skyscrapers in Moscow are called: the main building of the ministry of Foreign Affairs. From here we walked towards the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour at the river side.
Friedrich Engels is looking at the church from across the street. The church was already closed and we would visit it a later day. We circled the building and then crossed the pedestrian bridge halfway for a view over Moscow. While walking back to the hotel we passed the National Library of Russia with a statue of Dostoyevsky in front of it. We ended the day with cookies and vodka at the hotel.
On Tuesday we started our day with watching the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Alexander Gardens. They do it every hour, and while waiting for the ceremony to commence, we both a pair of vodka glasses engraved with the Russian double-headed eagle that we saw the previous day in the Kremlin ticket office. Although it was before noon, the temperature was already quite high and would rise above 30 degrees Celsius. This probably explained why the next two guards were in white shirts,and not in their full garments as the previous two.
After the ceremony we went to visit the Lenin Mausoleum, which is at the middle of the southern edge of the Red Square, next to the Kremlin wall. There is always quite a queue because it’s only open three days a week between 10 and 1 o’clock, but it’s free and there is only a security check, so the queue passes quickly. Seeing Lenin lying there, is quite impressive. You pass around him, at less than two meters distance. He is sealed in a glass coffin. It’s not allowed to take pictures and the room is quite dark with a reddish shine.
Before entering the mausoleum, you pass the tombs of other Soviet leaders, I noticed that Stalin has the most flowers. This is the only statue or public reference to Jozef Stalin I found in both Moscow and St Petersburg, except for the Fallen Monument Park. In the Kremlin wall there are other hero’s of the Soviet Union buried, such as Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outer space.
After exiting the memorial, we walked along the river and the Kremlin wall to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The cathedral is enormous and it is the tallest Orthodox church in the world. Stalin had the original church demolished in 1931, but between 1990 and 2000 the church was rebuild. About 200kg of gold was used for the different domes, that shine magnificently in the sunlight. The church is also beautifully decorated on the inside.
After visiting the church and refraining from buying an icon as souvenir, we returned to our normal café for a liter of beer. While sitting there my wallet dropped from my pocket but a woman sitting at a nearby table attended a waiter of this, and before I knew what happened I had my wallet back and before I could thanks someone they were back to their previous occupation. The Russians are not a talkative people, they just get things done. After lunch we visited some of the finer metro stations. The stations are highly decorated with murals, statues, chandeliers, and are incomparable to the cold and hard metro stations of the west.
We concluded the evening at Pushkin Café, a restaurant which was highly recommended by TripAdvisor, and is situated not far from the Pushkin statue which we saw a few days before. The interior gives a feeling of a 19th century literary cafe with a lot of woodwork, it reminds me of Germany or Austria. It’s quite large, with multiple floors. We hadn’t reserved a table and were quite lucky to obtain one on the fly. The waiters were very helpful: giving explanations with the different dishes. We started with a, recommended by the waiter, Russian salad of garlic marinated red cabbage and pickles, followed by borscht and as main dish a sort of minced lamb covered with bread-crumbs accompanied with potatoes baked in their peel. All dishes were very good. We ended with, also recommended, a horse radish vodka, which has, of course, a very intense radish taste. A very good and recommendable experience, only down side was that a few hours later, in the middle of the night, I woke up with an unquenchable thirst: the food was probably quite salty.
Gorky Park is a large park to the south of the city center along the bank of the Moskva river.
To reach it we walked from our hotel to and through the Alexander Gardens towards the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, crossing the pedestrian bridge behind the church to the Balchug island in the middle of the Moskva river. At the far end of the island there is the old Soviet chocolate factory which in old times made the entire neighborhood smell of chocolate, but which now is closed. Currently it houses artists, bars, restaurants and clubs. Next to the factory an enormous bronze monument in honor of Peter the Great has been erected. It’s quite controversial and I agree with the critics: it’s a extravagant display of kitsch.
To the north of the factory on the Bolotnaya square you can find the bronze statue group Children are the Victims of Adult Vices, which was unveiled in 2001, displaying adult vices closing in on a playing boy and girl with a large middle figure being indifferent.
On the east side of the island there is a line of love trees, similar to the Paris bridge filled with locks, and you can lock you lock on an iron tree.
As such, they don’t have to worry as in Paris that the bridges will collapse. We crossed the river to the south bank of the Moskva river and headed in the direction of the Peter the Great statue. We entered the Fallen Monument Park, a sculpture park full of old statues of the Soviet time, at first they were gathered here and piled up, but now they have been formed in a statue park.
Further south along the river is the New Tretyakov Gallery, a large museum displaying Russian modern art. We had lunch in the small cafeteria of the museum and afterwards crossed the street to the entrance of Gorky park.
The park is very large and filled with lots of people cycling, skating, relaxing… It has a several bars, ponds and even a beach where people sunbathe.
Midway the park we crossed the river and headed to the Novodevichy Convent. This cloister has remained virtually intact since the 17th century and has become a world heritage site in 2004.
We strolled through its gardens and visited several of its buildings and churches. Next to the southern wall of the convent is the Novodevichy cemetery where we saw the graves of Boris Yeltsin, Nikita Khrushchev, Sergei Eisenstein and Nikolai Gogol.
The info stand was unmanned, so we couldn’t buy a map of the cemetery . On the big info board at the entrance we first had to search/translate the names of the famous people whose graves we wanted to see, and then note down their coordinates, the sector and the row their grave was to be found. While searching for Anton Chekhov, we ran out of time, for it was 5 o’clock and the cemetery was closing.
We pushed on south to the Moskva river, accross the sporting facilities around the Luzhniki Stadium. When we reached the river, we walked along it to Vorobyevy Gory metro station which is on a bridge across the river. We used the bridge to cross the river to Vorobyevy Gory park or Sparrow Hills in English.
We sat a little on the grass to rest and then walked up the Sparrow Hills to the observation point, near the Moscow State University. From some points the view was spectacular, but trees were blocking a complete view over Moscow. It started to rain a little so we called it a day and took the metro at Vorobyevy Gory station back to the center, where we concluded the evening with pizza and beer on a terrace with a view on the Alexander Gardens and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
On our last full day in Moscow we visited the VDNKh, this large park was build as an exposition park and has museums and exhibition pavilions, fountains, food stalls, statues, …
It has the strangest statue dedicated to a former president, Boris Yeltsin, I’ve ever seen: A small blue dog holding a large column with a vase that’s threatening to fall. We walked passed the pavilions across the entire park, trough an area with fruit trees, through a forest and along several ponds in order to reach Botanical Gardens.
A lot of things have been renovated the last decade, but the Botanical Gardens, a bit out of reach for tourists, is still on the to-do list: the main glass house is currently being rebuild, but the main building and the other, smaller glass houses are a little run down. The aging administrator was nevertheless very happy to see us. She did not speak English but she did speak French, and she clearly enjoyed the change to speak it with me. It was raining softly when we were heading towards the Botanical Gardens but while heading back to VDNKh the raining intensified. We had a burger and a coke, and like the other parks in Moscow, no alcohol is served at any of the food stands. We had to wait a bit for the burger to be ready, but we didn’t mind, we were happy to sit under a shelter sheltered from the rain. The teenager baking the burger was very happy to be able to practice his English.
We headed back to the entrance of the park were the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics is located in the base of the Monument to the Conquerors of Space. The museum is which was quite interesting, and has replicas of the different Sputniks, space suits and exhibitions about the exploration of space and the space programs. Outside the museum and monument there are several statues of the first space explores such as Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova the first woman in space.
When we left the museum, the sky had cleared up and it remained dry for the remainder of the day. Before heading back to Moscow center, we walked to the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman statue, which is also the logo of the Mosfilm film studio.
Since this was our last evening in Moscow, we drank a White Russian at the GUM terrace looking out on the Red Square. The evening was warm, so we walked to Gorky park along the Moskva river. There were celebrations for the troops with firework, but contrary to what we thought, the fireworks were not in Gorky park, but some distance from it, so we didn’t see much of the fireworks.
On Friday we said our goodbyes to Moscow and took the metro to the Leningradsky railway terminal. When we came above ground and walked along the different platforms, we were confused. we saw trains heading to Vladivostok and Beijing and other places far in the east, but not to our intended destination: Saint Petersburg.
After a while, we realized that we were walking in Yaraslavskaya railway station, which is adjacent to Leningrad station. We were early, so there was need rush or worry. We walked to the other, correct, station and enjoyed there a Baltika 7 beer in the waiting room. Saint Petersburg is about 600 km to the north west of Moscow and the Sapsan high speed train completes the distance in just under 4 hours.
On Friday the 27th of March at around 23h our plane landed at Dublin airport. There my two travel companions and me got on a bus that would bring us from Ireland’s east coast to it’s west coast, and three hours later we arrived at our final destination: Galway, City of the Tribes, a city of seventy-five thousand people on the River Corrib. We were staying in the Bunk Boutique Hostel, which has the seeming advantage of being located across the street of the bus station: so very easy to find. The three of us had booked beds in a shared dormitory of six, the smallest room available, and we where hoping finding it empty. But no, three of the six beds were taken. Two of the available beds were solitary ground level ones, but the third was the top level of a three story high bunk bed. Agreeing that this one was the least desirable, we played rock-paper-scissors to determine the unlucky owner. I can only imagine what our roommates must have thought, seeing three men playing this game at three in the morning, in the semi-dark, to determine the bed ownership. The advantage of being close to the bus station turned sour when the buses started coming, waiting and going very early in the morning, especially because the windows next to the other occupied beds were open. At around quarter before seven I noticed I was not the only one among my friends laying awake, so we got up, got dressed and got out exploring the city. The sky was grey and it rained a little: the dominating weather conditions of the trip. We walked to Eyre Square and then through Shop Street, the main shopping street, towards the River Corrib and Galway Bay. Breakfast was included in our stay and was served from eight ‘o clock onwards, so made sure we were back at the hostel by eight. It was basic but sufficient: there were three types of cornflakes, brown and white toast, three types of jam, milk and coffee available.
The goal of trip was to visit a friend, Willem, who has been working and living in Galway for the past nine months. So after breakfast we set out to achieve our goal and walked for about an hour in eastern direction to Doughiska, a suburb of Galway City, passing the Greyhound racing track where we refrained from placing bets. We arrived in a sort of gated community of a few hundred similar houses called Fiodan, where our friend lived: quite a nice neighborhood, with a lot of well maintained green. I rang his bell, twice, and on his first floor a window opened where an old lady appeared asking what we wanted. I had the address wrong, my cell phone’s battery was dead, and to make matters worse none of my travel mates had his current number. We walked a bit the streets of the neighborhood and asked passersby if they knew a bearded Belgian guy living nearby. Non did however. We had come a long way and were so close but it seemed we were stuck. My travel mates might not have his current number, but they had his mothers number, and she guided us to the correct house, which was just around the corner. It’s a small three bedroom house with a spacious balcony and a nice view. We got a tour of the place and noticed our goodbye gift to him, a signed Belgian flag, which we gave him when he left Belgium some years ago, in his room. Against all agreements there was no cider in the fridge but our friend corrected the situation and jumped on his bike to get some.
Once all the cider was processed, we took the bus back to Galway City. We had lunch in the McDonald’s of Shop Street and afterwards explored the city further. Walking back to the River Corrib and following it upstream towards Galway Cathedral. The light drizzle had changed into a downpour, getting us all soaked. We waited out the rain in the Cathedral, which is quite ok, but since it’s only fifty years old, it lacks history. Since I wore a leather jacked, I didn’t have a hood, so to keep my head dry, I went looking for a Sou’wester, and Galway being a fishing town, I expected to find it. Easier said than done, it took us several stores and several trips crisscross the city, in the rain, before our local friend remembered a small fishing and shooting shop, Duffy’s, where they would certainly have what I was looking for. Ironically we had passed this store already several times that day, before looking for a hath, without paying any attention to it. They did have what I wanted and with the joy of a small child I walked back to the hostel, along the way going through a shopping mall which has parts of a medieval castle incorporated into it.
We refreshed ourselves at the hostel and scoured through TripAdvisor to find a good restaurant with local cuisine nearby. We decided on Oscar’s Bistro, a little but cozy fish restaurant across town, just on the other side of the River Corrib. We had some difficulty finding it, mainly because of the piercing wind numbing our senses. We arrived shortly after the restaurant opened and we were the second party attending, but it wouldn’t take long before the restaurant was full and people had to be refused at the door. I counted myself lucky being, for once, early. As appetizer I had oysters, fresh from Galway Bay, and prosecco: these were the best oysters I ever tasted. Great structure and flavor. The shellfish was followed by Gambas prawns in garlic and lemon butter: the dish was nicely presented and tasteful. Monkfish, or sea-devil, was to be the main course: one of my favorite fish for its big and meaty structure. To put the devil to rest, we moved on to rhubarb crumble with vanilla ice. And concluding the meal with, of course, an Irish Coffee. Of the entire meal, two things stick out: the superb oysters and the attentiveness of the adorable waitress. We were really taken in by the restaurant, it was also not expensive, we paid around €60 each, and were planning to comeback the following day for other fish and more oysters. Sadly Oscar’s Bistro was not open on Sunday evening.
We walked back to town and in Shop Street we went into the Coyote bar, looking for a bit of fun. We found only a handful of men watching the Netherlands – Turkey football match. We ordered a Guinness and joined them. Then a hen party came in, and another, and another until the bar was filled with partying women celebrating the wedding of their friends. Quite the turn around, apparently the bar advertises for its stag/hen party location. There was a cocktail bar, but the waiter was quite incompetent and the cocktails contained almost no alcohol. Around midnight we left the bar and walked to the hostel. At the Eyre Square we said our Goodbyes to Willem and lent him some bus money because not all bus drivers give change, after which he got into a cab.
On Sunday morning we had breakfast at the hostel and decided to take the Cliffs of Moher bus tour. This tour travels south of Galway, to the other side of Galway bay, over the limestone covered hills with its grikes and clints to Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher. We met Willem at the bus station across the hostel and the four of us set off for a day of sightseeing.
Our first stop was Dunguaire Castle, a 16th century tower house on the southeastern shore of Galway Bay. It was a quick 15m stop, a mere photo opportunity, because it was not possible to visit or enter the castle. Our bus driver talked ceaseless, first about the state of Ireland’s economy and people of the years from the potato famine, to the Celtic tiger years which ended in the recession, and the now the recovery. Then about every detail along the road, including local folklore and historic events. He did his job well.
Another highlight before the cliffs was the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a portal tomb of around six thousand years ago in the Burren. The structure in the desolate limestone landscape is quite beautiful, it gave me a sort of melancholy feeling. We continued to Doolin, a small coastal village where we had lunch in a local pub. There are walking trails from the village to the Cliffs, which are situated around 8km to the south, but we stayed with our bus.
The cliffs themselves are spectacular, rising up to 200m above the Atlantic. The ocean pounds them violently and I’ve never encountered a fiercer wind then on the edge of those cliffs. We saw and felt upside down rain: water drops taken by the wind and pushed up along the cliffs until at the top edge they form little geysers. And it was not even a stormy day, only a bit grey. The cliffs have featured in a number of popular films, probably the most memorably of them is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince where they are the setting of the sea cave in which a Horcrux is hidden.
We had an hour and a half free time at the cliffs, and we made good use of them, walking along the top as far as we could in the time provided. Strangely, we met our hostel roommates along the trail. When we left our room they were still in bed, and what is even more strange, when we got back to our room after the bus drive back to Galway, they were once again in bed, at around 6 ‘o clock in the evening. That evening no Irish fish was to be on the menu, but Irish steak. we had found a promising restaurant on TripAdvisor, but it was full, and there was waiting queue of three parties in front of us. They suggested leaving our mobile phone number and waiting, but we were famished. Willem advised us to go to Maxwell’s in Shop Street, he had been there before and was quite pleased with it. You could catalog it as a family restaurant, a clear space with lot’s of light, several tables were occupied by parents with small children. And one table was now occupied by four Belgian boys. Maxwell’s doesn’t have a liquor license, which became apparent when we tried ordering a Gin-Tonic to kick off our meal. The Irish steak I had was good and the Chilean red wine accompanying it was decent. We spent the remainder of the evening in Sonny’s, a pub in High Street, drinking Guinness and watching the Irish football team draw against Poland. Once more on Eyre Square we said our Goodbyes to Willem, this time it would take longer than a day to see each other again.
Monday morning at eight ‘o clock we were faced with a closed breakfast room, the attendant had overslept, probably not expecting anyone to be so early eager for food. But we were in a hurry, we had a bus to catch. Check out was simple and quick and we got on the Dublin bus at 8:45. A bit before noon we got off our bus at O’Connell bridge, we went up and down O’Connell street, crossing the River Liffey, moving thourgh Temple Bar towards Christ Church. At the cathedral we changed course to the National Gallery. This museum can’t be compared to its sibling in London, it is much smaller but nonetheless it has some works worth visiting such as Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ. We had some coffee and a brownie in the cafeteria of the museum. While discussing the things we’d seen these last couple of days we became aware that spread around the room three woman were busy breastfeeding their babies. Thinking of the hens parties of the first evening it appears the Irish do things separately together. When we left the museum rain was pouring down, we headed to the shopping street, Grafton Street, but decided against another march through the rain. In Suffolk Street we saw a pub O’Donohgues and wanted to take shelter there for the remainder of the afternoon drinking Guinness. But we still had to figure out how to get to the airport, so after some beers we headed into the rain searching for a tourist info point, we found one at the end of Grafton Street and there is an airport shuttle that had a stop nearby. Glad with this, we returned to the pub for some more Guinness. A bit before five ‘o clock we headed through the rain to the bus stop and after waiting quite a bit in the rain, the bus appeared. We still had an hour forty-five before take off so there was little stress. Dublin rush hour however raised our stress levels. The bus trip that should have taken us about twenty minutes now took us well over an hour. We got to the airport five minutes before the official closing hour of our gate. We ran to the security check where there was luckily no queue, we passed and continue running to our gate were we arrived in the nick of time, only to see that our plane had yet to land. No stress.
On the first of November I traveled with an old friend to London. The purpose of our trip was to see Sophocles’ play Elektra in The Old Vic. After an uneventful journey, our Eurostar reached St Pancras station around 9 o’clock in the morning. Being both avid Harry Potter fans we crossed the street to King’s Cross station to look for the Platform 9 and 3/4. We overlooked the huge queue at the photo opportunity and the HP shop and wandered a bit lost through the station, until at last we noticed the large crowd. In the shop/tourist trap I resisted the urge to buy a Slytherin Quidditch jumper.
The weather was nice: the sun was out and for a first of November it was quite warm. We decided not to use public transportation, and to walk through the city. We followed Grays Inn road towards the City of London and Saint Paul’s Cathedral, buying a cup of coffee in a Costa along the way. The smell of roasted nuts greetings as we crossed the Millennium bridge, after which we walked along the south bank towards Westminster. Hunger was starting to rear its head, so we stacked up with calories by eating a McDonald’s burger at Westminster bridge. After lunch we continued to Tate Britain for ‘Late Turner –Painting Set Free‘, a temporary exhibition devoted to the works that JMW Turner produced during the later years of his life. It’s a wonderful collection and I really loved it. The exhibition runs until the 25th of January, 2015 and I highly recommend it.
We had booked a room at Westminster Tune Hotel not far from The Old Vic. The room was clean and silent, the staff was polite and helpful: this all for £75 in London isn’t a bad deal. We asked reception for the nearest Nando’s and enjoyed some grilled chicken before going to the theater. We walked to The Old Vic and because there was still some time before the start of the performance, we decided to have a drink in the Pit Bar, the bar below The Old Vic, but here it was already quite crowded. We skipped drinks, exchanged our vouchers for program books and read them while standing outside the theater.
We had seats on the fourth row of the stalls, so the actors were performing at a few meters at eye height: great seats, and all things considered not that expensive: £85. The Old Vic’s podium setting is for the moment round, with the spectators sitting around it for about 270 degrees. The other ninety was reserved for a large door: the entry of Elektra’s home. In fact we walked round/over the podium to get to our seats. Once we were all seated, the lights dimmed a bit and a large man walked up the podium from a corridor and the performance started. Kirsten Scott Thomas performance as Elektra was intense, but sometimes it balanced on that of a caricature. Overall we both were highly impressed by the performance, the hour and forty five minutes were over in the blink of an eye; superb experience.
We left The Old Vic tingling from exhilaration, went looking for a pub and found The Duke of Sussex. Although it looked like a traditional English pub, it had a karaoke stand and one of the employees was doing his best to get it going, with a bit of success. After a pint of cider, we tried some British ale, a pint of Gangly Ghoul. It did not rock my world. Getting tried of a long day, we walked back to the hotel and stopped along the way in a night shop for water and donuts.
After a good night’s sleep we checked out of the hotel and went looking for a place were we good get a traditional English breakfast. We crossed the river Thames, went through St James Park, where we saw the Pelicans and lots of squirrels, past Buckingham Palace into Brompton Road where across the street from Harrods we found Richoux. A small tea room with traditional English breakfast, without beans: so does this still count as traditional? During our breakfast rain started to pour down from heaven. Our current goal was the temporary Constable exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which was at a distance of about 500 meters from our current position. We risked our dryness and steady stomach, and ran through the rain to the museum. It was nice exhibition, but I prefer Turner, for my friend it was the other way around. We skipped the ‘Wedding Dresses 1775-2014‘ exhibition and left the museum for a stroll through Harrods.
The sky had cleared up a bit, and it remained dry for the remainder of the day. We believed you could find anything in Harrods, but after examination we are quite sure there are no puppies! Disappointed we left the store and crossed Hyde Park to Speaker’s Corner and Oxford Street. Even after devouring a traditional English breakfast, all the running and walking made us hungry, so when we passed a Nicholson’s pub called the Pontefract Castle at the corner of Wigmore Street and St Christopher’s Place, we went in for Fish & Chips. We sat at table and were ignored for about twenty minutes, after which we left, hungry and annoyed. We walked to Piccadilly Circus and on the way we found another Nicholson’s pub in Kingly street: The Clachan. Here we made sure we were not ignored and had a decent plate of Fish and Chips: yum.
Aware of the terrible traffic on Holland’s motorways we made sure to arrive early in Den Haag (The Hague) and did so a little bit before 8 AM. We parked the car in the underground parking of the Spui, right in the center of Den Haag, under the New Town Hall. The parking is a bit expensive with 30 euro for a day, but the location and access to it, are marvelous. Across the Spui square there is the New Church, with it’s remarkable hexagon shape, but it was not open for visitors. We walked north to the Binnenhof where the first and second chamber of the Dutch parliament are situated, and the Hofvijver a large pond with a fountain.
From the edge of the pond we had a nice view of the ‘Torentje’, the official office of the Dutch prime minister and the Mauritshuis, the art museum that houses the Royal Cabinet of Paintings. We wanted to visit this museum, but it opens at ten and it was still before nine. So we had time to wander around a bit. The long drive to Den Haag and walking in the cool summer morning air had aroused some hunger, so we decided to try the breakfast at ‘t Goude Hooft, an inn with a large terrace, a bit to the south of the Binnenhof. The breakfast was extensive,with a selection ofcheeses andcold cuts,croissants, fruit,coffee andaglass ofprosecco, and delicious.
After breakfast we walked northwest to the Prinssessewal and the Paleistuin, a nice park next to Noordeinde Palace, the working palace of the Dutch King.
The park is nice, but nothing special. We heard the sound of hoofs, not surprising since we were near the royal stables, and saw a carriage with an eight-span in the street. Eight muscular black Friesian horses going for their morning exercise. We waited until the horses had disappeared through the gate of the royal stables and moved on to Noordeinde. A street lined with art shops that brought us to the front of Noordeinde Palace.
After visiting the museum, we noticed the cheese market on the square besides the Mauritshuis. Due to the large breakfast, we left the cheese for what it was, and strolled through the city to the house of Spinoza, where the philosopher died in 1677. From there we headed north, crossing the Grand Market, to the Grote Kerk, the protestant church named for it’s high tower and the Old City Hall, with it’s distinguished red colored shutters. Like the New Church, the Grote Kerk was also closed for visitors. We continued further north and after about twenty minutes we reached the Peace Palace, which houses among some other institutions, the International Court of Justice.
Both the palace as the palace gardens are beautiful, but they are not accessible for visitors. We were now halfway between the city center and the Municipal Museum, the second museum of Den Haag we wanted to visit. The museum exhibits a collection of Piet Mondriaan and others of ‘De Stijl’ art movement. In the entrance hall we were greeted by a Panamarenko statue.
We walked back south to the 1813 square, commemorating the Dutch Independence after Napoleon, and had a drink at the Hooigracht. After this alcoholic intermezzo we visited the Escher Museum, dedicated to the Dutch graphical artist M. C. Escher. A bit to the east of the museum lays the Malieveld, a very large grass field, where we enjoyed some Poffertjes, traditional Dutch small pancakes. Having seen everything we wanted in the center of Den Haag, we went for the car and drove a few kilometers to the North Sea beach at Scheveningen. Here we concluded our visit to Den Haag with a mango-coconut ice cream, that we ate in an ice cream parlor while looking at the North Sea.
Den Haag is a nice and clean city, ideal for a one day visit. The churches are closed, and bakeries very hard to find, but you’ll trip over art shops and there are several museums and art works that make it a journey worth to take.
I admit there was little planning involved for New Year’s Eve 2013. It would be a repeat of the previous two occasions: diner with some mates in Ghent followed by watching the fireworks over the city and ending in some bar. In the course of the 31th I received a text from the host saying he would be a bit later but couldn’t pinpoint when he would be available. Dark clouds where gathering over the festivities: we had a call and diner was canceled. It was 5h30 PM on new year’s eve and we had no plans anymore. That’s the negative view, on the other side: a world of possibilities just opened. New Year’s Eve diner became doner kebab in our preferred kebab shop and over the Turkish dish we went over options. We consulted some friends to see what they were up to but in the end we made a radical decision: we would drive to Paris and celebrate New Year in the City of Light!
The 4 hour drive was uneventful, traffic was calm, as if people were all at home or had better things to do then drive around. We parked in the underground parking of Forum des Halles and wandered the streets of Paris. We stumbled upon The Thistle Pub, a Scottish Pub in the rue Saint-Denis with great beers and a good atmosphere. We assumed this being the City of Light, there would be awesome fireworks. Our smartphones were without network connectivity and the bar lady didn’t know either were the fireworks would be. We gulped another beer and made our way to the Eiffel Tower. On our way to the famous tower, we walked along the Seine and noticed the crowds swell on the river banks to two, three and even four rows of people, all gazing at the tower, raising our expectations. Midnight was nearing and you could feel the anticipation in the air, it was electrifying.
Suddenly the Tower started flickering and the crowd burst out into roars: the clock-hands had joined at 12 and the new year had arrived! We shook hands and congratulated each other on making it alive to 2014. By now we were in front of the Eiffel Tower and climbed the stairs to Trocadéro, from where we had a view over the river and the city before us. Sadly the Christmas market at Trocadéro was closed, we had hoped for some stalls to be open to quench our thirst, but we were out of luck. Here and there a flare and a spark lit the sky but the massive fireworks were yet to erupt. Our viewpoint was ideal and it could start any minute now. Quarter past, became half, became quarter before, but the fireworks did not commence. The enthusiasm of the masses was contagious and everybody was in an excellent mood, but there was no fireworks and we realized nobody around us was expecting it to start.
We headed to the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysées, which was made car free and it was packed with people even at this late hour. Along the sides of this great avenue there were Christmas stalls but they were not open, it appeared impossible to buy booze and we saw little to no people in the streets with a bottle. The only thing that was still open was a Quick burger restaurant. They had a special variation of there flagship burger, Giant, for New Year and were doing great business. So we walked in the early hours of the first day of the new year along the Champs-Elysées with a burger in hand. For the life of me I couldn’t taste the difference between the New Year variation and a regular Giant, but I didn’t mind.
The crowds were dissolving and people were heading home. When we reached Place de la Concorde, police was closing off the lanes and instructing the dispersing party-goers to walk on the pavement so the cleaning crew could erase the traces of the celebrations. We saw this as our queue to call it a day and walked along the Louvre back to Les Halles, for our car, to start the long drive home.
The City of Light scrapped the official fireworks in the early 2000’s.
In the evening of Sunday the 8th of September I arrived at Italy’s largest airport: Fiumicino. After a short and pleasant flight, only 30 kilometers by train separated me from my destination: Rome. With my luggage in hand, I made my way to the train station, where I saw my train leaving the station on my arrival. I queued for a train ticked and when it was my turn the ticket lady suggested me the use of a shuttle service to Rome instead of the train. It would only cost me a euro extra and I would only have to wait six minutes, not the half hour till the next train. I smelled a tourist trap, but I thought why not: let’s go with the flow and see where it takes me. Six minutes turned out to be 20 but then a man arrived and guided me and seven others to the parking lot where his van was parked. He drove us safely to Rome Termini station through quite heavy traffic and only honked his horn once. Later, I looked up the prizes for the train ticket and it was indeed only one euro cheaper by train. So the ticket lady was no liar only someone with two employers who directs customers from the one to the other.
The night, which had already fallen on the city, hadn’t brought coolness. The streets were emitting the heat they had absorbed during the day. We took the metro to Flaminio. Underground it was not only warm but also very damp. From the metro station it was only a short walk to the hotel, located along the shore of the Tiber river, where Inwould be staying. I arrived there around eleven. My room was at the second floor and its balcony gave me a beautiful view over the river and the Saint Peter’s basilica. It made me feel like exploring, so I went out for a midnight stroll along the river, following it down stream till the nearest bridge. The temperature was dropping to a pleasant level. On my way back, I ended up at the Treebar, they where out of Tiramisu but luckily not out of beer and wine. It’s a nice place in a park between the trees with an interior of glass and wood. Good vibe and ditto service.
The Centre Pompidou in Paris is currently hosting the biggest retrospective of Salvator Dalí in more then thirty years. Being a fan of surrealism I wanted to visit this exhibition from the moment I learned it existed. Time constraints made picking out a date quite the challenge, but on the 9th of February it finally happened: I saw Dalí’s artworks, twice!
The concept was simple: drive to Paris for a day and enjoy this rare opportunity to see great works of art, that are normally spread across the globe, together. The day before I looked on the internet for a parking space not to far from the museum and on Parkings de Paris I reserved a space in the underground parking of Forum des Halles, 500 meters away from the museum: 19 Euro for 24 hours: sounds like a good deal to me! For a short while I was in doubt whether or not to buy tickets for the retrospective online. The tickets would give me priority access, but a friend of mine who visited the exhibition recently told me that the line for the cash registry was actually shorter, and on line a ticket would cost me 13 Euro but since I’m still under 26 I may enter the museum for free. Tossed a coin, mentally, and bought tickets: 13 Euro is not that much and it’s for a good cause. Am I now a patron of the arts? No, probably not.
Me and a friend, Dimitri, set out for Paris around six in the morning and after a four hour drive through a snow covered landscape on near deserted motorways we entered the city of Paris. It was my first time driving a car in France’s capital and I had expected a stressful chaos. But on this Saturday morning there weren’t too many cars and we drove through the city towards the Forum des Halles like a hot knife through butter. We spiralled down the underground parking until we reached the boom barrier at level -3. We possessed a voucher for a parking space but didn’t see how to explain this to the boom gate. I pushed a button, out came a ticket and open went the boom barrier. After a few meters in the garage we were greeted by an attendant, we inquired what to do with the ticket and the voucher, but the dwarf couldn’t help us: it was his first day and he knew nothing. I didn’t ask if he was from Barcelona. We parked and at the information desk at level -1 they explained us that when we would like to leave, we should come back to them and they would provide us with a ticket to leave in exchange for the voucher and the ticket from the boom barrier. All right! The Centre Pompidou opens at eleven but at twenty past ten there was already quite a queue lining up for the priority access. The queue for the cash registry was considerably smaller, could the friend that warned me for this be right, should I have heeded his advice? Around eleven, an attendant proclaimed that the museum doors would soon open but that the non-priority people would have to wait another quarter to twenty minutes. Of course: I realized that that friend is rarely right. We followed the stream of people up the moving escalators to the top level of the Centre while enjoying a spectacular view of the Parisian skyline. Once in the exhibition room, surrounded by Dalí’s art, we realized we had forgotten to get an audio guide at the ground floor. Since you need to buy a special ticket for an audio guide, getting one would mean queue a considerable time. We shrugged off the disappointment and enjoyed the exposition. For two hours we revelled in surrealism.
Although the sky was bright and the sun was shining it was a cold winter day. Once on the street hunger reared its head. We would deal with it while walking towards the Louvre. We strolled along the north side of Les Halles, crossed the Rue du Louvre and saw a red neon sign spelling PIZZA. We were in the mood for Italian food and decided to try our luck. Pizza Valentino, 26 Rue du Bouloi, serves a decent pizza amidst a nice interior for a reasonable price.
The guy manning the audio guide stand at the Louvre decided to practice his German with us, probably after hearing us speak to each other. My mother tongue is Dutch, related but not the same as German. I told the clerk: “Excusez-moi monsieur, Je ne suis pas Allemand, je suis néerlandophone” Maybe he assumed he was speaking Dutch because he persisted. With a gentle smile we accepted the audio guides and proceeded to the first floor of the Denon section were the painting are located. We enjoyed the paintings and the commentaries until we reached Bathsheba at Her Bath by Rembrandt and the PA informed us that the museum was about to close. Since this painting is one of Rembrandt finest, we were happy to end our tour of the Louvre at a high note.
We wandered through the Jardin des Tuileries, crossed the Seine and followed the river’s south bank towards the Musée d’Orsay. The museum was closed, as we had expected, but we learned that in the final months of this year there will be a major exposition of the works of Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo. Paris will see me at least once again this year. We set course for Les Halles by crossing the passerelle Solférino. In the McDonald’s in the Rue Berger we contemplated our options: go to a bar, continue marching through Paris like madmen or return home since there was still a four hour drive ahead of us. A thought took shape in ours minds: we could return to the Centre and visit the Dalí retrospective with audio guides. Sounds surreal? That’s the idea! The Centre is open until eleven and after seven the queues are much shorter. Besides: we didn’t have torn tickets, we had printed vouchers on an A4 paper, so we could just try to reuse it. The vouchers were scanned again and after a small half hour waiting we entered the Dalí exposition for the second time, with an audio guide dangling from our necks. Only one in eight or so paintings has a commentary but it still took us an hour an half to listen to them all. I would really recommend the guides, because you see so much more in the paintings thanks to them. Many of Dalí’s paintings have so many details or things concealed or things that could be interpreted in multiple ways, depending on your angle or distance to the painting. With some of the paintings you can even listen to Dalí’s own explanations: quite mad, I dare say.
With our heads almost exploding with information and on the verge of a cultural overdose we returned to the parking around ten. We presented the ticket and the voucher to the information desk and got our leaving ticket … from the same guy as in the morning. 12! hours later. Could have been his twin brother of course. We left what must be the most modern and beautiful underground garage I have ever seen and said au revoir and not adieu to Paris. What a wonderful day!
The Dalí retrospective continues every day until the 25th of March. Don’t doubt, just go!
In de avond van dinsdag twaalf april arriveerde ik voor de tweede keer in enkele maanden tijd in London. Deze maal had ik meer dan anderhalve dag om de metropool te bezichtigen. Ik zou er vier nachten doorbrengen op een luchtmatras in het appartement van een goede kameraad, en hopelijk de mooie kanten van de wereldstad leren kennen.
Woensdagochtend stonden we rond zeven uur op en tegen iets voor acht hadden we reeds het appartement verlaten, mijn gastheer naar zijn werk, ik de stad in. Vroeg in de morgen zijn er nog geen winkels of musea open, maar dat was geen probleem want mijn dagdoel was nog een eindje verwijderd. Ik stapte via Oxford Street, Regent Street en Piccadilly Circus naar Trafalgar Square om van daar verder zuid naar de Houses of Parlement te wandelen en langs de Big Ben door middel van Westminster Bridge de Theems over te steken. Eens aan de zuideroever van deze rivier volgde ik het Theems pad in oostelijke richting om zo naar Greenwich te trekken. Het wandelpad leidde me langs landmarks als de London Eye, Tate Modern en onder Tower Bridge. Aangezien het pad de Theems volgde, was het niet de kortste weg want de rivier legt een kronkelig parcours af, maar dat deerde me niet, het was immers een erg mooie, rustige route. In Deptford onderdrukte ik een opkomend hongergevoel met een pak kit-kats en een flesje cola die ik kocht bij een onvriendelijke handelaar. Rond half twaalf arriveerde ik in Greenwich. Ik liet het centrum voor wat het was en begaf me naar het National Maritime Museum waar ik een uurtje in ronddwaalde. Vervolgens was Greenwich Park met het Greenwich Observatory aan de beurt. Ik vond het lollig om er over de Prime Meridian te wippen en me dus afwisselend in het oostelijk en westelijk halfrond te bevinden. Iets na één besloot ik de terugtocht aan te vatten doch deze keer niet de Theems te volgen maar de rechte hoewel drukkere A200 naar Southwark Park te nemen. Eens het park voorbij, zocht ik weer aansluiting met het Theems pad om het te volgen tot het Tate Modern. Moderne kunst, op surrealisme na, kan mij maar matig boeien aldus was ik was er sneller dan verwacht buiten waarna ik de Theems overstak naar de noordelijke oever. Mijn vader had me opgedragen een boek voor hem te kopen: The Spirit Level een non-fictie werk waarin Richard Wilkinson en Kate Picket aan de hand van uitvoerig statisch bewijs aantonen hoe er in de ontwikkelde industrielanden een correlatie is tussen een aantal maatschappelijke problemen (gaande van geweld over tienerzwangerscahppen tot geestelijke gezondheid) en de inkomensongelijkheid in een samenleving en hoe in een ongelijke samenleving zelfs de rijke bovenklasse minder goed af is dan hun evenknie in een gelijkere samenleving. Ik heb het boek aangeschaft in een Waterstone boekhandel in Soho na richtingsaanwijzingen van een vriendelijke politieagent. Ik begaf me naar Soho Square waar ik me op een bankje neerzette om wat te lezen in het zopas gekochte boek. Ik vond het makkelijke lezend, zeer interessant en inzichtrijk. Ik sloot de avond af in een Italiaans restaurant in Soho, waarvan me de naam ontglipt en waar ik smulde van een pasta en huisgemaakte tiramisu.
Ik opende mijn tweede ochtend in London met een bezoek aan haar parken. Ik trok naar Hyde Park om het van oost naar west te doorkruisen en aan te belanden in de Kensington Gardens. Ter hoogte van het Peter Pan standbeeld hield ik voor een eerste maal halt en zette me er op een bankje, enkele meters verwijderd van een onverschrokken reiger. Ik las er een hoofdstuk in the Spirit Level waarna ik via een omweg langs het Physical Energy sculpture en het Albert Memorial naar Hyde Park trok. Hier las ik opnieuw een hoofdstuk in mijn boek, ditmaal op een bank met uitzicht op de Serpentine. Vervolgens ruilde ik Hyde Park in voor St-James Park en herhaalde mijn activiteit voor de derde maal. Hierna had ik genoeg van de natuurpracht en wandelde noordwaarts via Piccadilly, Leicester square en Seven Dials naar het British Museum. Dit enorme museum slokte vele uren van mijn dag op, iets waarvan ik hoegenaamd geen spijt heb. Rond vier uur verliet ik het cultuur paradijs en trok zuidwaarts naar, weeral, het Tate Modern. Ik had er blijkbaar Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds gemist. Ai, zit sinds drie mei in de bak in China wegens ‘economische misdaden’, ik kon toch niet Tate Modern bezoeken en dan de huidige hoofdattractie niet gezien hebben. Honderd miljoen handgemaakte en geverfde porseleinen zonnebloemzaadjes. Amai Ai. Ik vond het eigenlijk best indrukwekkend. Een onverlaat had een muntstukje in het werk gesmeten en dit glinsterde bij het bezichtigen van het werk vanaf de balustrade op het eerste verdiep. Niet dat het de charme van het werk te ingrijpend aantastte maar het gebrek aan respect is wel stuitend. Aan Tate Modern ligt een voetgangersbrug over de Theems naar St Paul’s Cathedral. Ik heb deze gebruikt, en even rondom de indrukwekkende kathedraal gedraald. Het was reeds zes uur gepasseerd en dus was de kathedraal gesloten, ik vond het niet erg, want ik heb hem bij mijn vorig bezoek aan de stad bezocht. De avond afgesloten door gezellig te tafelen in een Israëlisch restaurant in St Christopher’s place, een kleine zijstraat van Oxford Street, niet ver van Hyde Park. Ik at er een lamsfilet die erg goed smaakte en sloeg voor eens het dessert over.
Ik vatte dag drie aan in Regent’s Park, las er enkele hoofdstukken en begaf me rond elf uur via Marylebone en Euston Road naar de British Library waar er naast geschriften van Mozart, Beethoven en The Beatles ook twee van de vier exemplaren van de Magna Carta uit 1215 en 1225 tentoon liggen. Aangezien de collectie relatief klein is, nam dit bezoek niet veel tijd in beslag en na een uurtje verliet ik de bibliotheek om zuidwaarts te wandelen naar de National Gallery aan Trafalgar Square voor hun enorme collectie aan schilderijen. Ik kuierde enkele uren tussen de meesterwerken. Hoogtepunten vond ik Peter Paul Rubens zijn Een herfstlandschap met uitzicht op het Steen, het Portret van Giovanni Arnolfini en zijn vrouw van Jan van Eyck en de drie Caravaggios ( 123 ). Ik kreeg trek in een versnapering en trok naar de McDonnald’s in St Martin’s Lane, bestelde er drie cheese burgers en een grote cola om mee te nemen, keerde weer naar Trafalgar Square en verorberde er de gekochte waren op een bankje met uitzicht op Nelson’s Column. Mijn honger was gestild maar mijn appetijt naar kunst niet, aldus bezocht ik in de Sainsbury Wing van de National Gallery de tentoonstelling over het werk van de Vlaming Jan Gossaert (1478-1532). Als student koste het me maar £5, hoewel ik voor deze prachtige werken gerust meer had willen betalen. Aangezien de exhibitie rond één artiest draaide, was ze niet groot en in een dik uur had ik alles op mijn gemak gezien. Mijn laatste avondmaal, in London, bestond uit een uitstekende biefstuk en ditto spinazie-puree, gevolgd door een ijsje.
Zaterdagmorgen liep de wekker af om half 6, ik stond moeizaam op, dankte mijn gastheer voor de goede zorgen en wandelde naar het St Pancreas station om er de trein naar Brussel van 6u58 te halen. Ondanks het vroege uur was er reeds heel wat volk in het station en het inchecken met de bijbehorende veiligheidsprocedures nam wat tijd in beslag. De treinreis zelve verliep vlekkeloos en al sporend naar Brussel las ik mijn boek uit, de laatste bladzijde omslaand niet ver van het terminus station.
Op dinsdag 7 september ontwaakten we voor de laatste maal op Amerikaanse bodem. We checkten uit maar lieten het hotel onze bagage veilig opbergen tot het tijd was om naar de luchthaven te trekken voor de terugvlucht naar Zürich om 19u25. We reden naar Hancock Park aan de Wilshire Boulevard voor de La Brea Tar Pits en het bijbehorende museum. In de teerputten zijn vele duizenden beenderen gevonden van dieren die er in de laatste 50000 jaar zijn in vast geraakt, verhongerd en opgeslokt. Omdat het de eerste dinsdag van de maand was, was de inkom voor het museum gratis, wat een leuke meevaller. Na deze educatieve en interessante stop, reden we naar de Hollywood letters om ze bij daglicht te fotograferen.
In snel tempo want de tijd begon door onze vingers te glippen en op te raken. We bezochten voor de tweede maal in twee dagen de Hollywood letters. Na de fotosessie zetten we koers naar Venice Beach, om in onze laatste uren nog een leuk souvenir te kopen.
Onderweg hielden we halt bij een Bank of America om er nog wat geld af te halen. Het was geen sinecure om een parkeerplaats te vinden in Venice maar na even zoeken, slaagden we er toch in ééntje te vinden nabij het strand. Ik wou de Californische vlag als souvenir en in de eerste winkel die we binnen stapten zag ik hem al hangen maar spijtig genoeg was de voorraad uitgeput. We hadden onszelf een window van vijfentwintig minuten gegeven voor onze souvenirjacht in Venice, we hadden dus haast. Joeri en ik liepen de straat af op zoek naar een vlag, terwijl Willem in de eerste winkel iets uitzocht. Na enkele honderden meters vonden we een winkel die de vlag aanbood voor $14,99. Zowel Joeri als ik schaften er een aan. Tevreden wandelden we terug naar Willem die we in een crèmerie aantroffen. Hij had reeds een T-Shirt gekocht. Joeri en ik bestelden ook een ijsje en wierpen nog een blik op de Stille Oceaan voor we naar de auto gingen.
Om aan onze verplichting ten aanzien van het autoverhuurbedrijf te voldoen tankten we onze auto vol voordat we hem inleverden. Bij Alamo kregen we van de bediende een afrekening van $75, die reeds van onze creditkaart was afgetrokken zodat we niets meer moesten doen!? De bediende ging na het overhandigen van de rekening gewoon over naar de volgende auto. Not happy trokken we naar de klantendienst voor een uitleg over de rekening. Hoewel de tijd drong, wachtten we er een tijdje tot er eindelijk iemand beschikbaar was. De rekening was voor het gebruik van de GPS sinds onze autowissel maar wij hadden op dag 1 een pakket van $180 genomen voor de ganse trip. De bediende erkende de vergissing en annuleerde de betaling. Oef!
We wandelden richting ons hotel maar keerden al snel op onze stappen terug want we twijfelden over de te volgen richting :). We maakten dan maar gebruik van de pendeldienst van Alamo. We dienden er even op te wachten maar na een poos verscheen er een chauffeur die ons naar ons hotel bracht, uit dankbaarheid gaven wef de brave man een dollar. In het hotel vroegen we onze bagage terug en informeerden we naar de shuttledienst naar de luchthaven. Deze reed elk kwartier en we dienden gewoon voor het hotel te wachten tot het busje verscheen. Bij het uitchecken ontvingen we ook een rekening van $16. Het hotel had ons parking aangerekend maar we hadden onze auto op straat geparkeerd. Ook deze rekening werd zonder problemen geannuleerd, het zat ons mee vandaag. We stapten op de shuttle en deze bracht ons naar de Tom Bradly vertrekhal van LAX.
Het was twintig voor vier toen we aan de Swiss balie onze tickets in ontvangst namen en onze bagage op een loopband zetten waarna deze verdween terwijl we hoopten ze ooit nog terug te zien. We kuierden wat rond maar er waren minder winkeltjes dan verwacht hoewel er wel een McDonnald’s was, al waren de prijzen niet die we gewoon waren. Joeri nam twee gewone cheeseburgers die meer kostten dan gemiddeld twee doubles en Willem nam een aardbeienmilkshake. We zetten ons aan een tafeltje en mijn metgezellen verorberden hun laatste McDo maaltijd in waarschijnlijk lange tijd. 🙂 We hadden niet veel dollars meer op zak maar we wilden ervan af dus begaven we ons naar een krantenwinkeltje waar Willem een gamemagazine kocht en Joeri en ik al ons geld uitgaven aan twee zakjtes snoep en een kit-kat! Iet voor zes wandelden we naar de Security Check. Na mijn schoenen, pet en riem te hebben uitgedaan, stond ik voor de eerste maal in mijn leven voor een bodyscanner. Ik slaagde, net zoals mijn metgezellen de test.
Het boarden vatte om half acht aan en niet veel later steeg het vliegtuig op en vloog richting Zürich, waar we na elf uur vliegen aankwamen. We dienden er een uurtje te wachten alvorens op het vliegtuig te kunnen stappen dat ons naar Brussel zou brengen. De vlucht verliep voorspoedig, we kregen een potje witte chocolade-ijs aangeboden en voor we het goed en wel beseften waren we terug in België. De bagage liet niet lang op zicht wachten.
We waren weer thuis na ons onvergetelijk avontuur!