Days 78-84: Bruges, Ghent, Amsterdam, Madrid, and Barcelona
10.20.2016 - 10.29.2016
We took a side trip from Madrid to explore the charming canals in Bruges and Amsterdam, and added a stop in Ghent to admire the iconic altarpiece "Adoration of the Majestic Lamb."
Thursday, October 20
We landed in Brussels from Madrid and caught the train from the airport to Bruges. Big, dark clouds hung on the horizon as the train rolled past farm fields and small towns - very reminiscent of the many flemish landscape paintings we'd seen at the Thyssen museum in Madrid.
It was pouring when we arriving, and we paid a steep 6€ to ride the local bus 10 minutes to our accommodations for the night. We'd booked another AirBNB, just on the outskirts of the historic center, where we were greeted warmly by our host Steven. He equipped us with umbrellas and we walked to the center to explore the charming old town.
We got caught in a couple of intense rain showers, and sought refuge at Republiek - a theater converted to a hipster brew pub with fantastic beer and local cuisine. It was a great recommendation from our host, and Stephen enjoyed sending photos of our beer samplings to his brother to share the memory of beers they'd had years before (Brugge Trippel) and do a little humble bragging about new discoveries (Viven Master IPA).
Friday, October 21
We had a nice breakfast with our host featuring homemade granola and goat's milk yogurt, and then walked through old town by canals to de Halve brewery.
De Halve Maan brewery was founded in 1856 and boasts a recently inaugurated beer pipeline that transports the beer brewed in the historic old town to a bottling facility 2 miles away. We enjoyed sampling their beers in comfy leather chairs with a view over a well-travelled canal and a cozy fire crackling away. After a few rounds we tried their version of carbonnade - a flemish stew of meat and beer.
We continued our walk through town past charming canals and churches.
I started to not feel well, so Stephen escorted me back to the apartment.
Stephen spent the evening at funky local bar with weird music and good beer.
Saturday, October 22
On Saturday we had a morning train to Ghent. We seemed to be the only people leaving Bruges, and passed droves of people coming into town for the weekend on our way to the train station. When we arrived in Ghent, I was happy to see a mass bike parking lot at the train station.
We booked out accommodations for Ghent very last minute, and stayed in a quirky musician's quirky house.
We arrived at noon and he was just getting up from a party the night before, the traces of which were evident from the dank smell of cigarettes and scores of bottles strewn around the house. The house had 4 floors - our room was on the top floor and the 1 bathroom in the house was in the basement. Not ideal! It was just for 1 night, but was definitely the roughest AirBnB experience we had.
We dropped our stuff and walked to the old town, crossing some lovely canals.
We had a nice 2-course lunch with a view of the St. Bavo cathedral, which houses the famous Ghent Altarpiece.
After lunch we went to the church to see the town's main attraction. The Ghent altarpiece is formally known as the "Adoration of the Majestic Lamb," and is one of the most important works of the early Northern Renaissance. It a very large and complex 15th-century Early Flemish polyptych altarpiece. Eight of its twelve panel painting are doubled hinged shutters, and allow two distinct views depending on whether they are opened or closed. When opened, the center panel has as its centerpiece an altar on which the Lamb of God is positioned, surrounded by 14 angels arranged in a circle. The lamb has a wound on its breast from which blood gushes into a golden chalice, yet it shows no outward expression of pain, a reference to Christ's sacrifice.
St. Bavo's church itself is massive, and features lots of eye catching baroque features.
We wandered back across the canals, and posted up at a cozy neighborhood bar. We saw food emerging from the kitchen, and ordered up portions of the daily special - a savory meat pie with vegetables. It was great comfort food for a cold night!
Sunday, October 23
We had an early start to catch our bullet train from Brussels to Amsterdam, and it was a COLD morning!
My cousin Jesse was in Amsterdam with a group of coworkers from Dublin. We were able to meet up for a leisurely lunch at Van Zuylen right on one of the canal crossings, and then link up with his group for a drink before they had to mobilize toward the airport. One of his coworkers lives in Amsterdam and had picked a cool spot that was an old school that shut down and had been repurposed as a restaurant. Circle of life?
Because the annual Amsterdam Dance Event was that weekend, we had to book accommodations on the outskirts of town. We took the tram out, and met our host Mercedes. She was a delightful woman who teaches special needs children, and rents out the extra rooms in her flat to AirBnB travelers. She recommended a cool spot called de Skool, another school that was repurposed as a restaurant. Don't ask me why all these schools are available!
We were about to order when our server broke the news that they were closing early to host a special dinner with the DJs from the Amsterdam Dance Event. We settled our bill and went to a hipster burger spot called Frits.
Monday, October 24
Ever since that day in Bruges I wan't feeling well, and since I still hadn't recovered we went on a medical safari to get some antibiotics. I visited a couple of pharmacies which recommended doctors, and ultimately ended up at an expat medical clinic. I got seen right away by a 5th year medical student, who asked some basic medical history, took a sample, and wrote me a prescription. The consultation took all of 20 minutes, and I was able to fill the prescription across the street. I was out of pocket about $100, and I was happy to be on the mend.
We had a lunch stop and then queued up at the Van Gogh museum. I love Van Gogh. I love his works and lament his struggle as a brilliant artist that did not sell a single painting in his lifetime. The Van Gosh museum has some interesting pieces, like a whole room of self portraits, but I wish the museum has a stronger collection of his masterpieces and did a better job telling his life story.
We had dinner and drinks close to home that night, repeating our experience at Frits and meeting some characters at a nearby bar.
Tuesday, October 25
I whipped up a hearty breakfast at home, before we headed into town. We spent the day immersed in the Rijksmuseum, which houses an immense collection of Dutch art and history from the Middle Ages to the present day.
It was huge, and we explored the collection chronologically. We had to negotiate quite a few stairs to get around the collection! The building is beautiful, and even houses a large art history research library.
We made our way back to our neighborhood, and got a drink at our local watering hole. We hadn't noticed until this visit the creepy halloween decorations on the ceiling!
We walked to de School for their Tuesday night ramen special. My antibiotics prevented me from drinking, but I was delighted to discover Amsterdam has a thriving culture of herbal teas. Most of the establishments we visited offered lemon/ginger or fresh mint teas, which were beautifully presented with a little saucer with honey and a biscuit on top. The ramen was a little disappointing, but the ambiance was awesome!
Wednesday, October 26
We spent our last day in Amsterdam meandering the canals, getting pleasantly lost in the city.
We revisited Van Zuylen for lunch, but sat indoors since the outdoors conditions were not conducive to dining al fresco. I enjoyed some fancy herbal teas, as well as white shrimp croquettes - a local delicacy and
On our way to the train station we passed through the red light district- blocks of glass windows filled with women in lingerie. You can "window shop" so to speak, but don't linger unless you want to make a deal. These girls are trying to maintain a business, after all!
We waited for our flight in Amsterdam airport's green space. Would have loved to sit outside the whole time, but it was pretty chilly and we migrated indoors.
We arrived in Madrid and took public transit to Karen and Dave's condo. Karen, being the amazing human being she is, nourished us with another delicious home cooked meal. We caught up a bit before calling it a night, since we had to get an early start the next day.
Thursday, October 27
Our train left for Barcelona at 5am. From the train station we caught an urban train to our AirBnB in the Gothic Quarter to drop our stuff off before getting coffee at our beloved Satan's Coffee Shop. We were regulars during our last visit to Barcelona, and recognized some of the staff but they didn't recognize us. Fortified by caffeine, we revisited the Sagrada Familia.
We passed gravel pitches where large groups were playing petanque (similar to bocce ball), and then found Ali! - Stephen's pakistani barber in Barcelona.
We caught the metro to the Barcelona and went for tapas at Bar Jaixa, where we found some familiar faces. We'd chatted up the staff and a few regulars on our last visit to Barcelona, and they remembered us! We shared tales of our travels, and chatted quite a bit about the US election.
We stopped by the market near the apartment for dinner provisions, and cooked up a delicious pasta dinner from scratch.
Friday, October 28
We tried out Nomad coffee, which we bought coffee beans from before but hadn't tried in the store. Their pour over was the most expensive of the trip but not the best prepared, so we were disappointed but caffeinated so all was well.
Barcelona hosted the summer Olympic games in 1992, and we walked around the Olympic park a bit.
We enjoyed the views from the National Museum of Catalan Art, which is a stone's throw from the park.
We rode the metro back to the Gothic Quarter and got lunch at Bar Joan in the market. We loved their house vermouth, and the energetic staff. They remembered us as well, and we had a feast from their lunch menu.
We visited our favorite stand the get get cuts of cured ham and sheep's milk cheese, and went back to the apartment.
Stephen was on the prowl for a rooftop bar, and we found a winner on top of the Museum of Catalan History. We had a sweeping view of the harbor! We timed it perfectly with sunset, and also got to see the 2nd largest yatch Eclipse, which happened to be docked in the harbor.
Saturday, October 29
We loaded up all our gear and walked past some Gaudi architecture on our way to Satan's for a farewell cup of coffee.
We braced ourselves for our final flight on Ryan Air, which was predictably late and unpleasant. We learned at this point it was worth it to pay the extra 15 euros to avoid waiting in line, so we could relax in seats until there was actually an attendant and they were actually boarding the plane.
We arrived in Rome and took the Leonardo Express train into Termini Station. From there we had a 20-minute walk to our fabulous AirBnb for the week, which we shared with an Albanian model/fashion designer. More on that next time!