Galway

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 exWP_20150328_07_03_01_Proploring 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.WP_20150328_10_33_01_Pro 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 WP_20150328_17_07_06_Proseveral 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. WP_20150328_18_22_17_Pro 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 WP_20150329_10_50_13_ProDunguaire 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.

WP_20150329_12_18_19_ProAnother 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. WP_20150329_15_53_50_ProThe 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.WP_20150330_16_16_20_Pro 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.

Elektra @ The Old Vic

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 burgerMc Do London at Westminster bridge.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 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.Gangly Ghoul 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.

Pelicans at St James Park

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.

We still had a bit of time to kill before heading back to St Pancras, so we went to Trafalgar Square, which for the moment has a Big Blue Cock erected on its fourth plinth,Big blue cock and strolled through the National Gallery, visiting some of our favorite paintings: A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, The Arnolfini Portrait and  Sunflowers. A great way of finishing a great weekend.

Den Haag

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.

Mauritshuis & Torentje
Mauritshuis & Torentje

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 of cheeses and cold cuts, croissants, fruit, coffee and a glass of prosecco, 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.

Noordeinde Palace
Noordeinde Palace

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.

We arrived back at the Mauritshuis at ten and were thanks to our e-tickets the first to enter the exhibition. To me, the five most remarkable pieces here are The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, View of Delft, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Rembrandt’s Self-portrait and Night Scene.  And my favorite is View of Delft by Vermeer.

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.

Peace Palace
Peace Palace

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.

Scheveningen
Scheveningen

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.

New Year’s Eve 2013

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.

Rome

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.

 

Dalí retrospective @ Centre Pompidou

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!

London

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 ( 1 2 3 ).  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.

Yours faithfully,

Robin

The Final Day

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.

Hollywood
Hollywood

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!

Yours faithfully,

Robin

Palm Springs

We werden wakker te Santa Barbara, stonden op en begaven ons naar de ontbijtruimte van het hotel. Het hotel viel zwaar tegen, er waren enkel wat in plastiek verpakte gebakjes, koffie of thee. Geen fruit, geen yoghurt maar ook niet eens fruitsap of water. Tja, ik at drie cakejes en dronk een mok koffie met drie melkjes in. Terwijl we aten, kwam er een man de ruimte binnen, maar voordat hij kon ontbijten werd hij door de receptionist verzocht om het gebouw te verlaten. De man was een zwerver die een gratis maaltijd wou scoren. Na de terechtwijzing begon de man te fulmineren tegen de latino hotelmedewerkers dat ze ‘illegal aliens’ waren die jobs afnamen van zwakzinnigen als hemzelf. Na wat geroep, droop de man af en keerde de rust weer. We checkten uit en zetten koers richting Los Angeles, waar we nog een nacht zouden verblijven in het LAX Fourpoints by Sheraton hotel, hetzelfde hotel waar we onze eerste nacht in Amerika sliepen. De reis naderde haar eindpunt.

De drukte van het verkeer steeg naarmate we dichter bij LA kwamen. We trachten in te checken maar er was nog geen kamer beschikbaar, aldus bevestigden we onze reservatie en vroegen we of we onze bagage konden veilig in bewaring geven aan het hotel. We wilden niet op zwier gaan doorheen LA met al onze spullen in de auto. Dit was echter geen probleem, al onze bagage kreeg een sticker met een nummer en werd in een afgesloten ruimte geplaatst. Zonder zakken en zorgen reden we naar het Exposition Park in de downtown regio van LA om er de Rose Garden te bezoeken.

Rose Garden
Rose Garden

Het was onze derde poging en we waren eindelijk succesvol. De tuin is vrij groot en vrij mooi. Ze is blijkbaar ook een bron van inspiratie want Joeri stelde voor om de dagindeling van de twee laatste dagen radicaal te veranderen en om de rest van deze dag door te brengen in Palm Springs, wat op een goede 150 kilometer ten westen van LA ligt. We bespraken even de pro’s en con’s waarna we in overeenstemming richting Palm Springs scheurden.

Na anderhalf uur rijden arriveerden we in het stadje bij een bezoekerscentrum. We kregen er het advies de Aerial Tramway te nemen die ons van de vallei (806 m) hoger op de San Jacinto Peak zou nemen. Het roterende wagonnetje van de lift is de grootste in zijn soort ter wereld en heeft een capaciteit van 80 man. In twaalf minuten stonde we aan de top en het zicht was er geweldig. De eindhalte lag op 2596 m en was het vertrekpunt van verschillende wandelroutes. Onze tijd was beperkt dus hielden we het bij een kleine wandeling van acht kilometer naar Wellmans Divide waar we een groot halfuur op rotsblokken lagen te kijken naar de vallei ten westen van Palm Springs. Rond vier uur begonnen we aan de afdaling naar het tramstation om daar naar beneden te reizen. Eens beneden wandelden we naar de auto en reden naar ons hotel in LA.

We vroegen onze bagage op, checkten in en installeerden ons op onze kamer op de negende verdieping. Aan de receptie informeerden we naar de locatie van de Hollywood letters en ontvingen een route beschrijving.  We reden naar Hollywood en zochten te letters. De beschrijving was vrij nutteloos en pas na heel wat gezoek en gevloek vonden we de parking met een wandelpad naar het monument. Het was reeds na acht uur en pikkedonker op het onverlichte pad maar we zouden ons doel bereiken. Na even en terwijl de twijfel ons bekroop, zagen we eindelijk de Hollywood Letters! Ze waren godverdomme onverlicht! We genoten van de gehaalde doelstelling en trokken tevreden naar een McDonnald’s voor ons laatste avondmaal in de USA. We bestelden: twee McAngus Deluxe, twee McAngus SwissCheese & Mushroom, twee McAngus Bacon, één Large Big Mac Menu, één McDouble, twee Large Cokes en een Large Strawberry Milkshake. Het was decadent maar fantastisch!

We reden naar de Santa Monica en kuierden over de pier maar er was niet veel volk meer en het was er maar frisjes dus keerden we maar naar het hotel terug al maakten we nog een kleine tussenstop bij een McDonnald’s voor een vanille softijs ^

Yours faithfully,

Robin

Santa Barbara

Op Labor Day, de eerste maandag van september, ontwaakten we in Santa Marina en aangezien ons hotel geen ontbijt aanbood checkten we onmiddellijk uit en reden honderd mijl noord naar Hearst Castle, waar we rond tien uur arriveerden.

Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle

De Experience Tour zat reeds volgeboekt voor de hele dag dus kochten we tickets voor Tour 3 die de Casa Grande North, Pools, Guest Quarters, study en bedroom van het enorme complex aandeed.  Onze tour vatte om twaalf uur aan dus we hadden nog wat tijd te vullen. Ik at een brownie terwijl we de plannen voor de volgende dagen bespraken, waarna we een kleine exhibitie over het leven van William Randolph Hearst bezochten, de mediamagnaat (1863-1951) die met zijn eindeloze financiële middelen op zijn familiale domein zijn droomhuis liet bouwen dat steeds groter werd maar tevens nooit voltooid werd. Een bus bracht ons van het bezoekerscentrum naar het kasteel op de heuvel waar we in een kleine groep van vijftien een begeleide rondleiding kregen. Het was ronduit indrukwekkend, vooral het perfect afgewerkte binnenzwembad.

We reden terug naar Santa Marina om er in dezelfde Subway als de vorige dag opnieuw een fantastische Big Hot Pastrami sub te eten. Njam! Na de maaltijd zetten we koers naar Santa Barbara waar we tegen vijf uur in de El Prado Inn incheckten. Op de kamer vonden we een informatieboekje met een stadsplattegrond waarna we de stad verkenden.

Old Santa Barbara Mission
Old Santa Barbara Mission

We bezichtigden de Mission Santa Barbara, Courthouse, Granada Theatre om te eindigen aan Stearns Wharf, de 800 meter lange pier van Santa Barbara. Het stadje was erg leuk en er was veel volk op straat. Willem stuitte op een Panda Express en liet zich helemaal losh gehn. Joeri kocht een McAngus Snackwrap in de McDo en ik hield het bij een pakje koekjes en een snickers die ik uit het automaat in het hotel haalde. Op de teevee was er een Star Wars marathon bezig: woohoo! III was bijna gedaan toen we inpikten maar we waren te moe en we kregen niet eens A New Hope uitgezien.

Yours faithfully,

Robin