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Our flight to London was uneventful. It was a 777 which meant that we had screens in the seats in front of us so I could, if I wanted to, watch the in-flight movies. I had the vegetarian meal which was acceptable mostly because I received the first-class version since they had run out of the economy one. The latter version was, I was told, rather poor somewhat akin to prison fare (how that was known is unknown to me). Still, the flight was calm and as good as could be expected.
After winding our way through a very long and slow passport control line at Heathrow and then retrieving my suitcase (which I probably did not have to check) we caught the month old Heathrow express train to Paddington Station. The normal tubes cost around £3.00 but they take about an hour and are crowded. The express which runs between the airport and Paddington only takes a quarter of the time and costs £10.00. The convenience is worth the extra money after a long flight.
We were staying at a small hotel just a couple minutes walk from the Earle Court Underground station. Our hotel, the Rushmore, was an interesting mix of elegance and cheapness. For example, breakfasts were served in a conservatory that was once a hot house and would make a fine solarium, my bedroom while quite tiny had a nice fabric covering the ceiling. However, the ledger was balanced by not having hot water all the time: it was on a timer that wouldn't go off until 5:00p.m. this is cheap penny pinching.
Since our rooms were not going to be ready until early afternoon we spent the morning hours walking around London. We had a hot meal, rather poor service and a reminder that cultures do vary (e.g., in America toast is not an extra side order with most meals; jam doesn't cost), which did hit the spot after the iffy airline breakfasts we had eaten. We then walked, and got slightly lost, down to Harrods and saw some nice crescent town homes along the way. By the time we got into our rooms we were all quite ready for a nap before we were to start our evening family reunion with the family cousins on Dad's side.
The reunion went quite well. The members of this branch of the family clearly keep in close touch with each other and that makes for an open easy going atmosphere. Although I now can't say who I talked with or what I talked about I do think we all had a good time and I am sure that the folks in this branch of the family enjoyed learning about our doings.
We spent the bulk of the day getting to Nythfa House which is located near Brecon, Wales. We caught a train from Paddington that required we make a change at Newport which is in County Gwent. That ride went quite well even though it did start 15 minutes late. I think our late start accounted in part for the crowded state of the train since we were taking on people that would have otherwise used a different train to reach their stops. Unfortunately, our late start caused us to miss our connecting train and we had to wait for the next one which was scheduled to depart at 12::00 p.m. This gave us enough time for a quick self-made lunch of French bread sandwiches filled with turkey and ham. I think the Light Coke tasted slightly different from Diet Coke. Things can be named differently and taste differently from market to market.
The train from Newport to Abergavenny, called for some odd reason, a sprinter (it was not fast) was filled to the maximum capacity but the trip itself did only take about 25 minutes which was what the schedule had said was normal. However, because we were late our taxi was no longer present and we had to wait about 35-40 minutes for one to come to us. During that time we met a fellow HF Holidays traveler who was planning on taking a local bus but was persuaded to join us (it took some persuading of the taxi driver to let her come along. He thought that another taxi was coming was for her. It wasn't and he was a bit touchy about letting her come even though it clearly wasn't any skin off his nose). We arrived, 45 minutes later, at Nythfa House and were shown to our rooms.
Nythfa House (Nythfa means "nesting place" in Welsh) is composed of several buildings. The main building contains the majority of the rooms along with the lounge, dining room solarium, bar, and other central amenities. The outer buildings contain other rooms and a swimming pool. I'm located in Woodlands chalet which is one of the outer buildings (looks like a private house); Mom and Dad are in the main building. We quickly discovered that the umbrellas at the building entry ways are important. During our first day in Wales we've witnessed several brief showers. I think that this is fairly typical Welsh weather: rain, pause and perhaps see some sun, then rain again. Naturally all the rain makes this part of the UK very lush.
My room is a well appointed reasonably sized place with a single bed. It is certainly nicer than the room at the Rushmore. It lacks the fabric ceiling, but everything works and it does have a radio which I feel is more important than a television. The bathroom is also quite nice (no worries about hot water here). Although the shower is a bit small and the water spray fails to envelop you it is alright. One nice touch is the towel warmer. It is a set of metal tubes that are stacked one on the other with perhaps a foot separating each of the three tubes. These tubes are heated, I had thought by water like an old style radiator, but instead it is electric-based. This towel rack warms several small sections of the towels and though its design could be improved I am quite taken with it (perhaps I will get one for my bathroom in Ann Arbor).
We had a little time to kill before the Saturday tea and it turned out that this was a very good thing because I forgot my walking stick (I out-smarted myself by packing early!). We walked down to Brecon and found a sporting goods store where I picked up a walking stick for a very reasonable £29.00. It is good that Brecon, which looks like a thriving town, is so close because I may decide to purchase some additional clothing if the local micro-climate proves too much for what I have (weather comes in quickly and is quite mercurial. Its predominate features are rain and wind).
After a nap we went down for dinner and evening activities. The meal was, as we have come to expect, quite good. The evening activities which included a doom and gloom safety talk were alright. I don't do visual things well like identifying people by their pictures, but the team atmosphere is something I can enjoy. Tomorrow our walks will begin. I have decided to do the middle walk which is a 10.5 mile walk with about 1,000 feet of ascent.
The evening activity was a series of team games designed to let people in the group get to know each other better. Several of the games were visually beyond me like identifying people in a photograph. But, others like the determining a word from a spoken definition were more up my alley.
I woke up rather early and could not fall back to sleep. I think this has happened to me before and perhaps it can be attributed to jet lag. I was left with plenty of time on my hands before breakfast to just twiddle my thumbs and wait. Breakfast was typical UK HF fare. You could have cold or hot cereal and , if you choose, place an order for a hot meal (eggs of various styles, breakfast meats, their version of hash browns). A filling sumptuous meal.
The middle and high walkers met at the mud room to walk to our bus at 9:20. The bus ride, perhaps half an hour long, was on those typical twisty little English roads. I had wondered whether Welsh roads were like the ones in Yorkshire ones: full of twisty blind turns, narrow, bridges (covered or not) that were just wide enough for the bus. They are. Our driver had to back up to let people pass; other people had to do the same to let us pass. I imagine roads like these make drivers more polite.
The middle walk had 17 people including our leader David (the Knight group all chose this hike). The walk began with a gentle ascent on wide paths that had good footing (my understanding is that the path was a Roman Road). I was immediately struck by the lushness of the plants. This was especially true of the ground cover. A little reminiscent of the Maroon Belles of Aspen Colorado though the flora here is different. As we climbed towards Cribyn Mountain we were afforded a superb view back the way we had come which included a great look at the lake (actually I think it was a reservoir) we had driven past on the way to the trail head. The weather was splendid. It was partially overcast for most of the day with a temperature in the mid 60s. Although it was cloudy in the sky the air was itself clear. No worries about walking through mist shrouded scenery today.
The terrain was made up of what I would call foothills with little valleys between them. Later in the walk, as we worked our way around the contour of Cribyn we would see more mountainous terrain and some lovely valleys that opened out like great bowls.
It is worth noting that at the beginning of the walk while we were below the tree line we were constantly buzzed by large insects. Everyone had their own small cloud on non-biting pests to shoo away. Once we got above the tress the bugs pretty much left us alone.
We had lunch on the far side of Cribyn from where we could see (we were not trekking up it) Pen y Fan (pronounced Penn-ee-Van. A "fan" is a believe a top or summit) which is one of, if not the, higher peaks in this area at 886 meters. A solid mountain of green lovely grass. The natural beauty of the land was enhanced by numerous sheep. Some of the sheep were a bit more inquisitive than I think some folks would have liked, but they never actually got within touching range and no one encouraged them by tossing food towards them (I am sure that in other places, likely heavily trafficked with tourists, the sheep are more aggressive).
After lunch our descent back towards Nythfa House began. I think the bulk of the walk was descent. The ascent had one or two short steep spots but overall was quite gentle. The descent though generally not steep was on ground that I found tricky. Narrow paths, plenty of rocks (though not really loose), mounds and ditches in the ground, in other words all the things a person who lacks depth perception dislikes. I was, naturally, the slowest person. The worst downs were on some steep terrain that went down and sloped out. While not physically challenging the mental stress was high and that does make for physical stress. I expend more energy than most on the downs. However, when I was able to look around the views were grand. Lush, vibrant valleys speckled with sheep. Also, the whole area had a stillness about it that was quite pleasing.
The downs eventually got easier though the small mounds and ditches remained since we were walking along field paths, but I wasn't always the last person in the group.
All in all I enjoyed most of the walk. The last part, on paved roads, got a bit tiresome since we knew we were close to Nythfa House, but at least some of that feeling was attributable to the fact that we knew we were close (we had a great view of Brecon on the way down. I had not realized Brecon was so large).
Tomorrow I may do the low level walk. We'll see how my body feels and I will learn a bit more about the descents in that walk. After all, it is the descents that I find far more difficult. With luck the rain I am hearing will clear out by the time we start our walks, but if it does not that is par for this course I suppose.
The event for tonight was dancing which I chose not to take part in.
After a good sound night's sleep (unlike the previous day) I met the rest of the group for a typically nice HF breakfast. I had decided to do the low level walk partly because of the description given for the low and middle level walks and partly because the weather was unpleasant. I think my decision was quite correct for me. The rain that we had heard about had decided to stay. Along with the rain came a strong, pretty much constant, stiff wind. The combination had for a hard driving steady rain (sometimes lateral) that in fairly short order drenched you. You could not escape it. I have walked in rain before , but this combination was new to me. The constancy of the rain and the ferocity of the wind made what would otherwise have been a so-so day far less so-so. However, the air temperature was warm so we were not freezing (except when we stopped for a break). Of course all the rain, we were walking in clouds sometimes (or so it appeared), the clearly spectacular views were obscured.
The low level walk, 8 miles with 400 feet of ascent and perhaps that much descent, was gentle and would have been lovely but for the weather. We started out along minor roads that led to field roads which took us through low valleys to the local reservoir called, I believe, the Crai Reservoir which is either named for the town (or vice versa) or maybe the valley. The reservoir had spill ways that let the water out over the top of the structure rather like a pour off lets water run off a cliff in Arches & Canyon Lands National Parks. Of course, the latter are natural and only occur during a storm while the Crai's are more constant. Still, with all the rain we saw some large ones that foamed quite well.
We turned at the reservoir and followed a rail line up towards the top of the Crai reservoir and therefore full exposure to the weather. The track was quite gentle and at the top you could tell the view over the water towards the far mountains would be lovely if only you could have really seen it. By this time we were walking full into the rain and wind and this would remain pretty much the case the the remainder of the walk. Even though I reached saturation point that doesn't mean I liked the weather. Puddles formed in my boots and I could feel my t-shirt getting wet as the wind pressed my raincoat against it. That same wind turned the rain drops into small needles which at times did sting my face and eye. As we walked along the upper wide edge of an embankment of an old quarry I am sure the views would have been grand again if only it has been clear.
We stopped at an old abandoned house for elevens (nearly twelves) and had a quick bite to eat. Elevens are a mid-morning tea that generally take place around 11:00a.m. While the food was welcome you quickly realized that you were cold and started to shiver. Walking in the wind and rain was not bad because you were moving and expending energy. Standing still, soaking wet, you got chilled. After the break we continued along the embankment , with the rain and wind either in our faces or sides, feeling wet and wishing to curl up around something dry and warm. Eventually, we began an equally (or almost) gentle descent through park land.
With all the wind I understand why the higher part of the walk did not have much in the way of trees. They just couldn't stand with those constant fierce winds. Low down where the winds are a bit less, probably because the hills block some of them, trees can get a foot-hold and with all the rain this area receives they flourish.
The descent was made a bit tougher because the path, a park trail I think, was quite muddy and therefore slippery (there were some rocks too). We squished down this twisting path, finally entering Woodlands, where we stopped under a pretty solid covering of trees that served as adequate shelter for a second final quick bite. Again most people got a bit chilled.
At the end of the descent we entered (or maybe the descent in the woods was already part of it) the Craig y Nos County Park which was mostly meadows. After crossing the meadow lands we moved on to roads which took us to a local tea room and a chance to change into dry(er) clothing.
The middle level walkers (the high level walkers had joined them since their walk had been canceled) had arrived just before us. Their walk was slightly longer than ours but had more ascent. However, they did not do all of the walk because the highest parts were just too exposed and slick. They had their share of adventures too.
The bus was called and they were able to come early which meant we returned to Nythfa House around 4:30. I spent the afternoon before dinner relaxing, sleeping a bit, trying to prevent my thighs from stiffening up (I failed). Dinner was delicious and followed by an enjoyable activity involving identifying music-related things. Quite enjoyable. Hopefully tomorrow the weather will improve and the middle level walk I am planning on doing will be a lot of fun.
Today's weather report: cloudy, but dry, with spots of sunshine. Hearing this prediction from David (one of the leaders) made everyone happy. I decided to do the middle walk along with about 18 others (including Mom). Dad picked the high level walk (his back has been fine). The middle level walk started near Crickhowell and wound around some of the mountains in that area eventually ending up in the town of Crickhowell itself (all the walks ended there). The walk was 10 miles and had about 1,300 feet of ascent and I imagine about that, perhaps a bit more, descent. I was a bit concerned about the descent because my thighs felt quite stiff from previous days, but this concern proved unfounded since the descent was gentle and after my muscles had warmed up I had no trouble at all.
The beginning of the walk took us through some fields through some woods and along the local canal (Brecon-Crickhowell I think) that today is only used by people taking holidays. In years gone by the canal system was used to transport all sorts of materials, probably mined ores from around here, but since those industries have shrunk and surface roads and rails have improved the canals are no longer needed. When I think of Britain I do not think of rivers that would be unnavigable, full of white water, but clearly there are such rivers (like the Usk). Of course, the rivers flow from the mountains and if enough rain falls, something which certainly happens around here, the water is going to run fast and create white water that can be dangerous. We walked along the silt filled canal (a reddish brown color, which looked to me like the chocolate river Willie Wonka had in his factory). We then started our first ascent through a wooded hill which , if not for the different flora, could have been back by Front Royal. As it would turn out the majority of the 1,300 feet of ascent would take place early in the walk with a few steep, slightly rocky, wide trails that led through woods.
By this time it was becoming clear that the weather prediction was not quite right. The weather was turning out to be far better with few clouds and plenty of sunshine--a very welcome change.
We walked along a road for a time and by this time realized the one flaw in the weather: a brisk wind was making things a bit chilly. I actually put on my long sleeve shirt and raincoat to keep warm and stifle the wind. I am not sure what the road was, perhaps the Beaufort road which I believe we crossed later on the way back down, which we walked along for a while before turning again into the rolling hills that looked northward down into the Usk Valley. Near the top of the hills we found the Lonely Shepherd. The Lonely Shepherd is a pillar of stone that overlooks the Usk Valley and Clydach Gorge. The story I believe I heard Steve relate is that a shepherd who wasn't getting along with his wife (i.e., no good sex) would come up to these high hills to contemplate the world. One day he just stayed too long and a pillar of stone appeared where he sat.
We moved away from this lone standing stone a little down the hills into a small slightly sheltered hollow to have a leisurely lunch before we began working our way back down towards the river and Crickhowell below us. The beginning of this section of the walk featured a large escarpment, on our left perhaps the Llangttock (pronounced "chl" perhaps like "cholesterol") Escarpment referred to in the guide book, that was a sheer lime stone cliff extending quite a ways around and above us. We were walking through a local valley that was covered with small hillocks that was really quite nice. The escarpment had plenty of caves openings in it, but no one investigated them (I'd not want to do that without the right gear). We entered a Nature Reserve called, I think, Craig y Chilau (could be Cilau) which though quite small showed off a variety of local flora along with the cave system (some of the flora was actually fenced off to prevent the ever present sheep from cropping it).
Our descent began about this time through somewhat narrow scree-like paths. However, unlike the first day I did not feel as nervous, though I know I expended more energy than others, moving along the pathways. We contoured down the hillsides towards woodlands which were a little tougher because the light kept changing and the path had its fair share of loose rock. We left the woods and entered a marshy area, Waen Ddu (I think pronounced "the"), which only claimed one person's boot top (he washed his sock out later in the canal). By this time everyone had taken off their coats (actually I took mine off well before the marsh).
We then walked through fields towards the canal which we followed towards the Usk bridge which was effectively where the walk ended in downtown Crickhowell. All in all a lovely walk which could have done without the last break (giving us more time in Crickhowell to enjoy a tea room). I am especially pleased that I did not feel it as much as I expected too.
The after dinner event was called Call My Bluff and it reminded me a bit of a game I think I had heard in the old BBC show My Word. In Call My Bluff two teams play against each other with the audience taking and indirect, but potentially crucial role, trying to identify the true definition of a word in the midst of false ones. The moderator keeps score and gives each team a set of words and two false and a single true definition. The opposing team and audience do not know which definition is correct. For example, a word like "hadron" could have the following definitions: 1). the hadron refers to the ancient ha'drone, a deep now un-used, fourth drone found on old High Lander bagpipes, 2) the hadron is a dance of Hasidic origin, 3). the Hadron is a sub-atomic particle. In this case the correct answer is 3. The audience gets to vote on which definition it believes is the correct one and then the opposition team picks their answer. If they're correct they get a point. If the audience is correct they get a point.
The teams had been picked on the first night by the leaders using methods only they knew, but which I suspect involved their best guess of which people were the most voluble. The male team included Dad.
After all the words were given and attempts to define them were made the audience came away the winners with 5 points while the teams each had 3 points. Some of the definitions/stories for words were really quite inventive.
Today was our free day. We had decided to visit Hay-on-Wye which is a famous local town. Perhaps famous is the wrong word: renowned may be better. Hay-on-Wye is known for its bookshops. This small somewhat sleepy seeming town has something like 34 used (no new) book stores in it. It holds a book festival every year in May which is attended by authors from all over the world. People who know books have at least heard of Hay-on-Wye (I had not, but there was an article in a recent NY Times which I would have read if I had seen it?I have now read it).
To get to Hay is a simple matter. Just hop on the bus in Brecon that seems to run to and from Hay-on-Wye (I do not think either town is a terminus for the bus) every couple hours. The road trip ride for all of us cost £3.15. Seems like an excellent deal even though the ride does seem to take longer than it should given that the driver does drive quickly and Hay-on-Wye is only 16 miles away from Brecon. However, perhaps Ypsilante is about that far from Ann Arbor and if that is true the length of the ride is comparable though the AATA is considerably cheaper at $1.50 round trip. It seems like this area has a well developed city connector bus service which is something we do not have back home unless Greyhound buses count. Oh, and the bus ride itself was through country that was generally prettier than I think I would see going from Ann Arbor to say Chelsea (which is about 15 miles away and requires 45 minutes and costs about $3.00 round trip and runs every 90 minutes). Once we arrived in Hay we just began to explore. We wandered into some large book stores like the Cinema Book Shop which is a converted movie theatre to little hole-in-the-wall book stores that you could enter and then take two or three steps to reach each wall no matter where you were standing. There were also many galleries some of which had some very nice little items like intricate glass coasters or antique, guaranteed to be 100 years (or more) old prints of castles, people, landscapes, and so on (Dad found some 250 year old prints of architectural drawings that either Mark or Bob would have liked for a mere £45.00). While I don't think I would want to live in this small rather quaint (somewhat continental feeling) town it was alot of fun to visit.
After exploring Hay-on-Wye for two hours we caught the return bus to Brecon and spent the next three hours wandering there. Brecon has a wholly different feel about it. Brecon is, as I understand it, a local political seat as well as a hub for tourists who want to explore this region. In the past, for Brecon this extends back several hundred years, I'm sure one major industry here would have been driven by the mining of things like iron ore. Where Hay-on-Wye felt more like a continental serene village Brecon feels more like a small city with Continental touches (i.e., flowers in window boxes galore). We had lunch at a nice little restaurant called Eliza Blues and we then just walked about. The information center is quite extensive and we picked up a 10p map of Brecon and worked our way toward the canal and Promenade which are shown here. This area was quite pretty and the weather, the best to date, made it even better. People were out and about , many families, by the water having a pleasant time. It was enjoyable. We then went to the local museum to learn (and then forget) something of Brecon's past. This museum was very well designed and laid out. It included extensive exhibits on the history of Brecon including many examples of tools people used to use, a mock school room, and what I think was a courthouse that was being re-furbished. The museum also had two rather nice galleries with some stunning art for sale.
I should note here that every town we have seen seems to have a castle in it. While I imagine these castles now either serve as private residences (Hay's is apparently owned by an eccentric fellow who has claimed himself to be King of the area) or maybe as museums it is a strong reminder that in days gone by every town was part of a feudal system and had its own lord to defend (and maybe abuse) it.
We returned to Nythfa House around 4:00p.m. and Mom and I decided to walk to the leisure center we had heard people talk about. A short walk down to where the bus has picked us up for hike and to the left up a steep hill past the Brecon High School (we did go up a path that led into the school, quite steep, but couldn't get in because there was a locked gate at the top) and you arrive at a substantial center. Think of this place as a super YMCA or maybe like a county rec center (though I have never been to the Ann Arbor one) and you will have the idea of this place. It had a pool, work out areas, sports hall room, bowling, lawn bowling, and all sorts of classes. Some people from the group were giving lawn bowling a try (it is a bit like shuffleboard in that you aim at a target, a whitish ball, and try to get as close to it as possible without hitting it. Your opponent can knock your balls out of the way. These balls are weighted on one side which makes them curve. Perhaps this sport is really more like curling). After our brief visit we went back to Nythfa House and joined Dad on their putting lawn to read and soak up the glorious weather before the so-so buffet dinner.
A guest speaker who worked for the National Trust and dealt with foot paths in some fashion was the scheduled event. It did not sound all that exciting to me so I went to sleep early.
Today Dad and I did the middle walk while Mom did the high level. The weather started out cloudy and cool but as the day wore on it warmed up into the mid 70s to perhaps 80 in the sun. One of our best weather days so far. Our 9 miles 1,900 feet ascent walk began at the Talybont reservoir. This area seems to have several reservoirs. We started at a car park on the western edge of the reservoir and made a steep ascent on Allt Lywd (no idea how to say that). This ascent was long and steep. It took us around 2 hours to reach the top. The paths were generally quite good though so it was just tiring because it was so lengthy and steep. This ascent was one of those that would confuse you since you would reach a plateau and then realize that another hill stood in front of you waiting to be climbed. Still, the views back towards the reservoir were grand.
Near the top we reached a peat plateau which we discovered was quite windy, perhaps on a level comparable to Monday. You could see clouds just boiling over the ridge line towards the reservoir on the other side. Quite impressive, but it also meant it could be damp. Crossing the plateau and then climbing up a quite steep conical hill pretty much into the wind took quite a bit of effort on our part. However, once you made the top you did have quite a sense of accomplishment even though you were not out of the fairly cool gale like breeze (35mph or so is the guess).
While on this plateau (Craig y Fan I think) you could at times see eastward towards the Black Mountains and westward (and maybe a bit south) towards other valleys which I was told were South Wales proper and held many old, now defunct I believe, mining (iron) towns and quarries. Those valleys looked darker than the ones surrounded by the Black Mountains, but that was probably just a trick of the light.
Our lunch spot, shown here, was at Carn (cairn really) Pica. This cairn was made in Victorian times by people for reasons that I do not know. It just sticks out on the Craig y Fan and is visible for quite some distance. Perhaps that is its purpose: a marker. It served as an adequate wind break while we had a too long break for lunch (this continues to be my only real complaint with the middle level walks. Breaks should be shorter and less frequent). It was sometime after this that the high level walk, while eating their lunch, spied us descending from the cairn (they were eating at the cairn) and realized that it must be chilly on the far side since they could see people like myself because I was still wearing my red anorak.
The descent of Gist Wen was gentle and very long. Virtually all our climbing was completed at Carn Pica with only minuscule undulations in the land afterwards. The descent contoured around hills and through patches of peat down towards the Usk valley and Talybont town itself. There wasn't much worth remarking on during this time which did consume over half of the walk. The valley views were nice, the weather splendid (the wind was gone once we got a little bit off the plateau that Carn Pica was on) and I even had some conversations with people.
One exception: we crossed a field with several cows and one large bull (a Red Devon Red according to some of our party) . For some people the bull was a cause for more trepidation than others. While you don't want to anger such a large animal I think some folks were overly nervous. We crossed without incident. David hung back to let the cows and bull check him out which they did (clearly friendly and probably hand fed by others) and then when he came to meet us the herd followed after him knowing, I guess, in their own cow way a good thing when they saw and/or smelled it. The last part of our gentle descent was through farmers fields and stiles some of which had their share of nettles. Then our path took us over a local small road through a path in some woods (well nettled) over a stream with a nice bridge by a local church (Llanfeugan) which I never saw. At this point we walked along local roads down to the canal from where we had perhaps a 0.75 mile along the canal path to Talybont itself. By this time, we were already late (thanks to the breaks) some of us really wanted to get to the town for a bit of tea and food (Dad's blister was finally acting up). Some of us including Naomi and her Mom (I think) really hustled along the path to reach that goal. We did see two canal pleasure boats coming the other way. The first one made me think of a hearse while the second white one was much prettier.
We reached the town after a bit of confusion on which way to turn on the main road after leaving the canal and found everyone else waiting and had just enough time for a tiny bit of tea (almost full cups were left) and a tiny piece of cake. The tea room will not go down in memory as having good service.
Tonight's feature event was the Brecon Games. The Nyftha House version of an olympics if you feel like being very generous with a definition. The four teams of 5 or so people played several games including a hurdle-the-chairs while balancing a ball on a spoon (I think I did pretty well on my leg of that relay even though we did not win), a slamon around chairs using newspapers as skis, a limbo which I thought Raphaël who is our youngest and smallest group member would win but instead ended fourth (inexperience no doubt). Desmond, a Jamaican man used to climbing and not comfortable with the Welsh weather to say nothing of the stinging nettles did remarkably well considering his size. But, it came down to a battle between two small women on two other teams. The remaining event is one that I cannot recall. Sadly, our team came in last place. That's life.
Today we did our final walk for the week. I had planned on doing the middle level trek, but since only a couple people were going to do that walk it ended up being canceled. It appears that you need at least 4 people to do a walk though I am not really sure why (I know that there are rules that affect when someone under 18 can take a walk, but that wasn't the issue here). So, I had a choice of either the low or high walk and I decided after talking with David about the footing to take on the high walk which would end up being around 11 miles long and have somewhat less than 2,100 feet of ascent (more on that later). All the walks ended at Hay-on-Wye so people had a chance, especially those that did the low level walk, to spend some time browsing the book stores.
After a lengthy bus ride, the longest one of the trip at about 35 minutes (or so it seemed), we reached the trail head for our walk. The day was starting off, like so many others, cool and misty. The start of the walk found us climbing up a ridge line with quite good footing and it certainly wasn't as steep as Thursday's walk. In parts it made me think of a gun barrel pointing up. We were climbing the Y Crib starting the Pengenffordd (the double "d" is pronounced like a "th" in "thing"). The ridge had several slopes with brief plateaus between them. Unfortunately, this part of the walk was completely enveloped in mist. Visibility was only in the 100 meter (less for me) range so we could not see what should have been superb views of things like Y Dad and Rhiw Y Fan. However, as we reached Twmpa (the "u" is pronounced like a "uu" in "vacuum") the mist had begun to break and the sun shone through providing us with wide grand views of the Wye valley below. Before this happened we had reached the top of the ridge and one of the things that we found up there were a group of Welsh horses (ponies) that clearly did not mind people walking by them. One of the horses was giving its fellow horse a bit of a cleaning which I hope was returned in kind because I imagine it felt good. Just after walking through the small herd we came upon a Trig Point that was once used in establishing survey maps (or resetting your altimeter if you had one since its height is known). This Trig Point is a tall, maybe 4 feet, pyramidal shaped obelisk that for someone with normal vision should be visible from quite a far ways off.
We stopped for lunch a little past the navigation marker on the edge of the ridge, more like a high plateau with some peat, that faced the Wye valley. The sun was shining and a flock of Ravens were cawing making for a very nice mountain/meadow scene. This whole area is ideal for para sailing (the type of air sailing that uses maneuverable parachutes) because there is a constant set of winds that make fine up drafts against the mountains that apparently can effectively loft the para sailor quite well. As we hiked towards Gospel Pass we saw a group of people coming up the other way with heavily laden packs containing their parachutes and other equipment. At Gospel Pass, it separates the plateau we had been walking on (Twmpa plateau?) and Hay Bluffs, the group split into two parts. One part would climb and then descend Hay Bluff while the other group would walk around the bluff down towards Hay-on-Wye. Dad's foot was troubling him so he choose to take the latter route and Mom and I came along. David would lead our intrepid band around the bluff and along Offa's Dyke Path into Hay-on-Wye.
Much of our walk was on the local road which while gentle is a typical road surface and therefore hard on the feet. However, some of the walking was on grass and pasture (had horses and sheep) which were on Offa's Dyke Path. King Offa was, I think, a Welsh king who had a 132 mile Dyke built during his reign that was designed to keep the English out. This earth works structure was a 10 foot deep ditch backed by an 8 foot wall (these measurements are approximate based on what people believe could have been moved). Unlike Hadrian's Wall this Dyke was an entirely earthen structure and it did not have watch towers and the like (no where near the Roman thoroughness), but it did serve its purpose. While we never saw the dyke itself it was a pleasant if a bit dull walk.
We reached Hay-on-Wye just after 4:00p.m. and found the low level walkers already there some of whom had found The Unicorn tea room. The tea and pies that this place served were quite good and a fine way to end an enjoyable walk. The other group of high walkers, who we had seen on top of the bluffs earlier (they did see us too) arrived about 30 minutes after us which left them enough time to enjoy a fine tea and truly enormous scones that The Unicorn served.
After dinner the activity for the evening was a Cielidh (cay-lee) or talent show. Unlike previous HF trips this cielidh did not have as much in the way of individual acts, but was laced with several dances that were organized by the trip leaders. The whole event was more fun than I had thought it would be and everyone that took part had a good time.
Today was primarily a travel day. We said good bye to everyone else in the HF holiday group and caught our taxi to Abergavenny at 9:00a.m. for our 9:45a.m. train (here is the Abergavenny train station you can see the sign is in English and Welsh) to Newport and then London. The train ride was uneventful with an on time final arrival at Paddington. We then found our way to the Waterloo station where the Eurostar trains were located and waited for our 2:23p.m. Brussels train. The Eurostar is the train that runs through the Channel Tunnel (Chunnel) and, in theory, runs at about 300kph when in France and Belgium. I say "in theory" because we could not actually tell how fast we were traveling and the train manager never came on the public address system to tell us our top speed. It felt like we were moving faster in France than in England but it was hard to tell. The Eurostar, all one quarter or so miles of it is a nice clean train with seat with decent leg room and plenty of luggage space. Like all trains the club car sells a limited menu at very inflated prices. The small cup of tea I had was £1.00 which is outrageous. We arrived in Brussels on time and took a straightforward taxi ride to the Hotel Welcome which bills itself as the smallest hotel in Brussels with just six rooms.
The hotel is near Saint Catherine's church and just a 5-10 minute walk east of the Grand Place. It looks like we are in a very good location. After an enjoyable, fairly inexpensive (Brussels could be quite costly where food is concerned) dinner at a Greek restaurant called Parnasos we wandered around Grand Place and some of the twisty streets off it for a while. We discovered a couple streets, still named for their old purposes like selling cheese or butcher shops which were bustling neon lit street full of restaurants of all sorts. I do not think we will have trouble finding places to eat though finding a place just for coffee and desert may be more difficult: we could not find a coffee house.
After a less than ideal sleep in a soft bed we got together for breakfast around 8:30a.m. Breakfast is a very Continental affair with hard rolls, croissants, various spreads, cheese, juice and strong though not particularly good coffee. The hotel manager/concierge a Mr. Simone who is a very solicitous little man served us breakfast and asked a second time if I wanted to use his glasses to see better. A nice gesture though even if glasses would help I suspect that one person's glasses would not usually work for another.
We did not have much of a plan for the day except to walk around the city and see what we could find. The first thing that struck us about the city was it was very quiet. All through the day we saw relatively few people. This was especially true in the Museum of Ancient and Modern Art. The Museum of Ancient and Modern Art was our first main goal, but to reach it we took a rather circuitous route past several nice art galleries. Of course, we had not meant for our route to be so full of wrong turns but that is how things sometimes work out. We wound our way through sections of Brussels that were not really all that pretty to look at. In fact, much of the city is not particularly pretty. For example, Saint Catherine's Place has all the elements it should need to be quite appealing--fountains, trees, nice shops (a few), and restaurants, but it is not that appealing. The elements fail to gel. I am not quite sure why.
We arrived at the Museum of Ancient and Modern Art in mid-morning and found out that it not only cost a little (F150 per person) but that certain rooms of it closed at different times during the day. The idea that a museum would close during the day, I expect for a lunch break, is foreign to us. We therefore started our rounds with this knowledge in mind which meant we began with the ancient art of people like Breugels. Breugels and his contemporaries (not to mention his own son) painted large canvases (oils?) of very detailed scenes. For example, one painting shows the census at Bethlehem as if that village were in Belgium complete with snow covered ground. Another painting, a village celebration with villagers carousing, gambling, fighting, pissing, and so forth. While these paintings are superb moments frozen in time (though not necessarily real moments) they are too much for me to take in.
We visited a room or two devoted to Ruebens but these did not thrill me. I was looking forward to his works of voluptuous women and the museum was not displaying such works (maybe they did not have any).
The museum itself is laid out in many very nice rooms that are devoted to specific artists. The lighting is often soft, dim, and diffuse. I imagine this type of lighting is preferable when considering the health of the paintings being displayed. However, while many of the galleries are very nicely designed and the paintings are well hung we also saw signs that the museum could use some help. A prime example of this could be seen in the carpeted floors that we trod upon. Keeping carpet clean in a high traffic area is a tough chore and the museum was clearly not always succeeding in this area. This did detract from the enjoyment somewhat. While carpet might be less costly in the short term than say stone I suspect that the life-cycle costs for carpet are higher: short term thinking wins again even though it may well be wrong.
We moved from the ancient art to the more modern work of René Magritte. I knew Magritte only as a name and from what little I knew of his (the gallery also named his wife so maybe some of the works are hers) work suggested I would like it. I was not disappointed. I particularly liked Empire of Light, the picture to the left of it depicting a night scene where the moon and stars were in front of the trees, and the lady nudes whose bodies were depicted in multiple colors instead of flesh tones (i.e., blues, reds, and browns).
I have to mention the elevator in the museum. This elevator is large enough to move large amounts of cargo, but it is hardly a dull drab lift. It is carpeted, well lit, has mirrors (I think) on the walls, and lining the walls are perhaps 4 or 5 chairs for people to sit in. If the elevator had been one of those kind that you could see out of it would have felt like something from an SF story that had a space needle in it. It was a great lift.
We ate lunch in the museum cafeteria. The lunch was acceptable and the prices were comparable to other similar establishments. No complaints on that score.
We left the museum just before 1:00p.m. and worked our way towards Louise Place via the Palais de Justice which had, to our surprise, a panoramic view of I think north Brussels. Though the view was not spectacular, I don't think Brussels can boast a sky-line comparable to a city like New York or Chicago, it was nice to see. We caught a tram to the house and studio of architect and designer Mr. Victor Horta who was a leader during the Art Nouveau period which ran from the late nineteen to early twentieth centuries and was the precursor to Art Deco. His house which is unassuming from the outside was spectacular on the inside. On the outside the only indication it might be something special is the fine iron work around the windows and the curves you see in the windows and their sills. Inside you discover a much more open and naturally lit suite of rooms than you would expect to see in a city town house. The ornate designs of iron and wood that surround furniture, make light fixtures, and accent walls and doors with curves beyond number are stunning. The detail is impressive. For example, a wall unit of lovely wood with intricate designs on the wood also hold built in light fixtures made of iron rods that seamlessly merge into the unit. The sky light in the roof of the house casts a lovely light across the central spiral stair which has walls covered in paneling that actually look good. All the rooms have cathedral ceilings some of which have highly detailed inlays to match those on the floors. Sadly, we could not see all of the house since many doors were locked. This included the kitchen which is a room I would have liked to view. Also, the garden was not accessible though it looked like it could be quite nice. Horta's work is characterized by detail and curves. This is in contrast to the work Charles Rennie Mackintosh did which is detailed, asymmetric, and full of straight lines. Each is wonderful in its own way.
Throughout the area of Louise Place we were able to find, via the Rough Guide which in at least this regard proved accurate (though it had the admission price to Horta's house quite a bit low), other buildings either influenced or designed by Horta. The giveaways were visible in the curves of their facades and the iron work used to accent windows. We were not able to enter any of them.
We caught a tram to a local large park near the Museum of Ancient and Modern Art and from there worked our way back to the Grand Place where we finally found lots of people (the museum had been exceptionally empty). We also came into the square during the middle of some type of parade that featured several bands of varying formality playing martial music, a troupe of people carrying and twirling various flags, and other people in varied costumes just following in the parades footsteps. I don't know if this was a weekly event or something of more significance. It was alot of fun to watch and listen to though.
After a late afternoon break back at the hotel we had dinner at a so-so Italian restaurant (La Luna I think). I think the previous night's meal was superior. We then walked through the parts of the Saint Hubert Royal Galeries which are reputed to be the oldest covered arcade in Europe completed in 1847. The very high (several dozen feet), arched glass ceiling is full of small squares that are clearly meant to provide strength to the roof is quite stunning. The shops and eating establishments in this arcade are high-class and the only gripe I have with the arcade is that the air doesn't move too well which means that the cigarette smoke hangs around more than I would like. Above the shops are apartments for artists which are rented at a cut rate compared to other central locations in the city. As we walked through the arcade we came upon a string quartet from Moscow playing Ravel's Bolero. They sounded quite good.
After the arcade we began a quest for a coffee house. Clearly we are either exploring the wrong areas of Brussels or the citizens of this city are not into coffee houses/tea rooms although they obviously have an abundance of restaurants of all kinds. The best we were able to come up with, after asking at the Orion back at Saint Cathérine's Place, was a tavern next door where the espresso like coffee was accompanied by smoke and good jazz.
Today we started with a city walking tour that we had learned about from the Tourist Information Office in the Hotel de Ville which is not a hotel but a suite of government offices. The tour consisted of five people and the guide. Two of the five were French speakers (though I think they understood more English than we did French) so the English-only tour ended up bilingual. This was, at least to my mind, a bit of a disaster. It certainly slowed the tour down considerably and left one group or the other twiddling their thumbs while an incomprehensible tongue is spoken. As a result we did not see nearly as much as any of us had expected too. We spent nearly an hour in the Grand Place and much of what we heard from our archeologist tour guide passed through our minds without leaving much of an impression. Bits of information that did stand out were some details of the design of the Hotel de Ville as a government building. It was built in the early 15th century and initially was fairly small. Facing the building you just had the left wing of the building as seen today which housed a 12 member city council made up of noble-born men. The guides were, justifiably since they were responsible for making Brussels the wealthy city it had become, upset that they had no representation on the council and achieved their representation a few years after the left wing was completed some 20 years after the left one. Both wings of the building are built along Gothic lines, but you can tell that they were built at different times. For example, the windows on the left side of the building are squared off in their arches while the right side windows fill their arches completely. The tracery also changes from one side to the other and the left wing is slightly larger than the right side. This last difference is not a snub to the 12 new members of the council. It is a nod to the fact that a market street existed on that side which prevented construction. A practical reality which I hope the theoretically practically minded guilde-masters recognized. In the 1450s the 96 meter tall spire was added. It is topped with many symbols including gold hooks used to hang fire pots for special events which signify Brussels illuminating Belgium and hence the world (how parochial), and a golden statue of Saint Michael who is the patron saint of the city.
Other buildings around the Grand Place are newer. Brussels was essentially leveled by a French artillery barrage in the late seventeenth century (c. 1690 I don't recall the exact date) which destroyed most of the city with the notable exception of the Hotel de Ville. Across from the city council seat of power a Baroque building was built by some emperor who used it as the seat of his authority to remind the city council that they were not the end all and be all of power. Other buildings housed, and still do, companies or other commercial places, private homes, and a brewery museum. Some of the building have recently been renovated (cleaned) but others have not. This seems to be in keeping with many other old buildings in the city that seem to be in need of repair.
We then toured around some areas that Mom, Dad, and I had already visited and though our guide gave them some nice local color I don't think any of us learned any more than we already had known. We did wander into a dead-end street in the Sacred Island which is a section of the city that has been designated a historic district. Much of Brussels has been destroyed to make way for the new--brusselization--and that has removed much of the older buildings from the city scene. The Sacred Island will remain as it is today complete with its very old narrow market-based streets that date back to the early 14th century.
After the tour we went to the train station at Midi to cancel our Eurostar tickets. We had found out from United, via phone, that there would be just a $150.00 fee to change our flight home to Sunday. But, as it would turn out United was less than forthcoming with information as we would later discover when we went to their ticket office after having lunch near Place Louise. It turned out we would also have to pay an additional $172.00 to fly home from Brussels. If the operator on the phone had told us this we would never have cancelled our tickets to London. Dealing with travel arrangements these days is such a chore. Airlines make life so difficult (Eurostar does too. We cannot get our refund, a mere 50% of the tickets face value which means they can make 1.5 times the amount on those seats, locally but must deal with the US issuing agency) and things are completely arbitrary (Mom and Dad pay $172 while I pay $142). We convinced United to waive the $150.00 change fee and now will return on Sunday from Brussels. The fares and fees are arbitrary in the extreme and the onus for figuring things out is completely on the traveler who doesn't even know what to ask anymore.
After spending quite a bit of time in the cool United Airlines office, I think today's high was around 92 F which I suspect is quite high for this region, we headed towards what was touted as one of the city's most popular parks. While we found it, by this time we were not in an exploring mood since we were hot and Dad's foot was bothering him. The park we found also did not look that appealing. By this time it was after 4:00p.m. and we decided to return to our hotel via the well developed public transit system.
We enjoyed a fine middle-eastern style dinner at a nearby restaurant. We keep forgetting that the listed menu price includes tax and tip. It is disconcerting to be unsure what to do about the gratuity. Supposedly it is included in the price, but at the same time if that’s true why do guide books say round to the nearest 10 francs (about 33 cents). It is nice to be able to add your own tip in like we do back home. Of course, some people would find our system equally confusing (including some Americans). Of the dinners we have had so far this meal ranked highest.
We had planned on going to Bruges which is a city cited by every guide book as being worth the visit to see the city itself. Of course, this means it is touristy and the books note that fact, but they say it would be a shame to miss it. Our plans were de-railed though when we arrived at the central station. It appears that inter-city train workers are on strike for three days and today is the second day. No trains to Bruges. However, international trains were not affected by this strike and some of them make stops in other Belgium cities. So we decided to visit Antwerp instead. Our tickets were apparently just as good on these trains as the in-Belgium ones (though no one checked) so we caught a train that terminated in Amsterdam but had a stop in Antwerp. The train's scheduled departure of 9:44a.m. was delayed about 15 minutes but once we boarded it was an easy (i.e., the seats have lots of space) ride to Antwerp of around 35 minutes. The train actually does not stop in Antwerp's marvelous central station but instead in Berchem which is a station on the outskirts of Antwerp. We did not see any signs for quick transportation into the central city, though they must have existed since we were the only ones who took the bus route we did (#18), so we caught a bus that we thought would get us to where we wanted to be: Green Platz. The bus weaved in and out among neighborhoods on the fringes of Antwerp. These areas were full of nice looking parks and some very modern looking residential areas (not cookie-cutter sub-divisions). All the weaving around the fringe of Antwerp did lengthen the ride quite a bit and we did not reach our destination for perhaps another 35 minutes. Still the bus ride was worth it. It made Antwerp appear to be a much nicer region than what we have seen of Brussels thus far.
We had decided to follow, more or less, a walk suggested in Fodor's. First though we had a coffee break at a small cafe called Panos that may be a chain. The apple strudel and cream cake that we had with the espresso-based coffee were quite good and a fine way to begin our walk around Antwerp.
We headed towards Grote Platz which is a major square in the city. Among its sights are a large cathedral which we did not enter and a couple statues of monster slayers. One, done in gold leaf, is Saint George slaying the dragon. The other sculpture shown here, a green patina covered bronze, is of a I think local hero throwing a giant's disembodied hand into the Schedt river. We moved on towards the Steen which is a 1,000 year old fortress on the river that has served as a military fortification and a prison. You can clearly see the older and newer construction of this fortress. The newer, 17th century I think, construction includes conical towers on the periphery of the fortress. We did not really explore this fortress so I cannot say if it felt like a military stronghold or not. Today it is used as a marinating museum.
We then entered a historic district whose center piece building is, I think, the old butchers building. What makes this edifice stand out is the construction of its walls which are made of alternating layers of red brick and sand stone. It is really quite striking. The other buildings are newer than the early 16th century guild house but also feel old in their red brick design. We think most of them are now residential. I thought they were a bit like brownstones but with more appeal. This area of Antwerp has many narrow cobble stone street some of which have low wide steps suitable for horses. It was quiet and not heavily trafficked in this area.
Our next stop was in a house that used to belong to Peter Paul Ruebens benefactor and patron (also a seven time mayor of Antwerp) whose name I cannot recall. His house was large with vaulted ceilings and lovely stone or wood floors. While it did not have the elegant feel of Victor Horta's home (of course, it was built in a radically different era) it did feel like a place a wealthy man about town would live and live well. Its central courtyard looked quite nice and I can imagine a family doing quite well in that house which was, naturally enough, full of art work of the owner's contemporaries many of whom he probably supported (including Ruebens--we did see some of his women).
Throughout our wanderings through Antwerp we all got the feeling that it was more alive here both with tourists and locals. While it was not crowded on the side streets the city had a nicer more alive feel to it than much of what we have seen of Brussels. This lively feel makes the city a much nicer place to walk around in.
Our walking seemed to take us in circles around the Grote Platz which made it all the nicer since we kept finding our way into breezes which cooled us nicely on this atypically warm—perhaps 90 F--day which continues the above normal temperatures. We eventually found our way to the central train station of Antwerp which is a lovely neo-Gothic building of very high arched and domed ceiling with grand stone work all around. Like so many European train stations this one has sections of wide open glass atrium which makes the station feel so much nicer especially when you consider the neighborhood around the station is not particularly nice even though it is the Diamond District. The Diamond District is where serious diamond trading takes place. Antwerp is apparently an important diamond center.
One thing we did find that is very nice between the central station and Gone Platz is a long pedestrian mall with many upscale shops and restaurants. It looked like it had both tourists and locals roaming around it and it certainly was active. We found a butcher shop where I got a simple pepper/garlic salami sandwich (Dad had eaten earlier, Mom was not hungry except for drinks and ice cream). I followed that inexpensive lunch with a stop with everyone else at a Haagen Daz ice cream shop, a touch of America I suppose since Haagen Daz is actually American, which was quite welcome.
By the time we returned to the central train station the inter-city strike seemed to be over. We're not sure if they're striking for 3 days but for just partial days or whether the strike is really over, but for our purposes we were able to take a direct train to Brussels. The train ride took only about 25 minutes (5 to get to Berchem) versus the slightly longer international one we had taken earlier in the day. After our return and afternoon rest we went to a restaurant both guide books suggested and had a fine meal including a tasty Chimay beer for me and a sherbert with a strong beer flavoring that was really quite good. We still cannot quite figure out why Saint Catherine's Place doesn't gel for us, but the latest theory notes that there is an awful lot of gray cobblestone between the fountains and small tree lined edges. The great wheel we had seen on top of a pedestal is apparently a found object in an excavation that was used to rotate a local bridge.
I enjoyed Antwerp and recommend it.
The strike of train conductors (really engineers I believe) is over. Our visit to Bruges was therefore able to proceed and we caught a 9:30a.m. train to Bruges. The train ride took just under an hour and the train was full and noisy. This made the ride seem longer than it really was. Bruges' train station is not as elegant as the big three of Brussels and certainly does not compare to the central station of Antwerp. It lies about 2km. west (and maybe south) of Bruges proper. The walk into the city gets you into the right mood though as the street gets a bit smaller and the buildings seem to get older. At the same time you start to realize that the guide books are correct and the city definitely draws more than its share of tourists many in sizable tour groups.
On the way to the central part of town we stopped for a brief look at a nice furniture store and then wandered into what I think was a hospital and museum. While the museum was closed we were beginning to soak up some of the architectural scenery: brick homes, plenty of arch ways, tall peaked (sometimes step gables) roofs, and quite a bit of green amongst the narrow streets.
We arrived in the town center and began our first search for a place to get a quick snack. Once that task was accomplished we began to wander around the city with only a vague plan of action in mind. The best way to see this town is to just walk around it. The first really nice spot we found, after crossing a narrow arched bridge that spanned the canal (having to wade through one of the often seen tour groups) was a small park with some very fine sculptures of the Four Horseman of the apocalypse. I had already begun to notice the profusion of horse drawn carriages. A carriage driver can clearly do quite well in this touristy middle ages historic town.
We found our way to the two main markets of Bruges which I imagine are busy even when tourists are not around. The first larger market is a bit overwhelming and I did not come away with much of a feeling for it; the second smaller (I think this one is The Burg) is nicer. In the latter square you see several major old buildings including the building that housed (maybe it still does) the city council. Of course there was a church , Bruges seems to have quite a few, which we did not enter.
We then began a circuit walk, not too any plan, around part of the town that took us through both central, older, more tourist traveled sections of town and less traveled areas that were perhaps newer and more home to the local residents. Throughout our wander we saw the architectural themes of brick homes, steep roofs some very nicely tiled while others classic step gables, other buildings made of various stone, and either cobblestone or modern cement streets. It was nice to move away from the tour groups and fairly frequent clip-clop of horse hooves into the less frequented areas. While many parts of Bruges do feel a bit theme park like it does not in any way feel Disney-esque or overly glitzy. But, the less traveled areas remind you that people live and work in Bruges and that is a good thing.
After completing our circuit of a fair piece of one part of Bruges we were ready for lunch. We picked up sandwiches and drinks at the same place we had our morning snack and settled down for lunch on the other side of the park with the sculptures which I mentioned above. We sat on the edge of the canal, which really makes the town much nicer, and watched the canal tour boats go by. The canal tour was our next stop.
The tour takes about half an hour and although it is multi-lingual the tour guide did a much better job than the fellow in Brussels. Maybe that was because he had a very set path to follow. We passed by many pretty buildings with some old brown bricks and others with perhaps equally old bricks but renovated so their bricks were red again. One thing I noticed were the flower boxes right on the canal which were full of very red geraniums. While I do not recall specifics of the tour the overall impression I was left with was of a very nice downtown area including private homes that went right down to the edge of the canal, larger buildings that today might be museums but centuries ago could have been homes of wealthy people or perhaps housed guides, several churches, and many low bridges (most arched).
After finishing our canal tour we started trying to find the Beguines, a cloistered area that has for the past few centuries housed Benedictine nuns. Finding this area took quite some doing. We had many false turns and we managed to get turned around a few times in the twisting streets. Still, we did find the cloisters eventually. They're a series of white washed houses that surround a green area which you are not supposed to trod upon) that does feel quiet and peaceful. We then walked over, more or less directly, to Minne Water which is romantically, but incorrectly, called the Lake of Love. This man made lake was created I think 600 years ago to expand the harbor area of Bruges which is itself some 6 miles away from major water. After taking a quick peek at this man made lake we headed back to the train station (we realized as we approached the station that we could have actually walked along Minne Water, but at the time we had know way of knowing that). The train was right there, we had unwittingly timed it perfectly, and we were off to Brussels on the 3:34p.m. train. The trip back seemed to take less time than the trip to Bruges. Perhaps this was because it was the return trip and the train was both less full and quiet and we were all together so we could chat, but the trip did go by more quickly (marred a bit by the drunken fellow who seemed to wake up as we approached the northern Brussels station).
We had a tough time finding a place to eat dinner at. We went through the high tourist, and therefore expensive, restaurants on the neon lit street around the Grand Place and in the Saint Hubert Royal Galeries. We just could not figure out what we wanted. But, in the end we settled on a tavern where we had coffee the first evening (after a long nearly fruitless search for a coffee house) in Brussels. The meals we ended up eating over the next couple hours were quite good though so perhaps it was a peculiar kind of fate that brought us back to the tiny, barely visited, restaurant by the Orion Hotel on Saint Cathérine's Square.
The morning wake up call happened sometime around 6:00a.m. with the construction company getting into full gear on the site next door. It was the loudest yet. Too loud. I think they had been making noise before then just getting into position and then there were the cars that seemed to zoom down the cobblestone street making a terrible racket (the stones need to be far less regular than they are. If they were cars would have to move slowly). We had had enough. We found a new hotel, fairly easily, that was just a couple blocks further down the square. The Hotel Noga, which is named for the woman who owned it initially (perhaps an Israeli) is far quieter and looks like, even though it only has two stars versus Hotel Welcome's three, nicer. Good sized rooms, Mom and Dad almost have a suite, nice firm beds, good bathrooms with far better showers. My only gripe so far is that the radio is not in a good spot and I cannot locate AFN.
We spent the day walking around parts of the city we had not really been to yet. We headed east towards the Palais Royal and Sablons passing by all manner of buildings many of which look like they need to be cleaned still. One exception to this is the Metropole Hotel which as we discovered later on has a lovely interior. On the way we found our first somewhat pretty park. Granted the ground had a dusty look to it (so does my back yard) but at one end there is a nice fountain that is framed by two rows of trees that line the park's main pathway.
We left the Park de Brussels and continued on, past an excavation of an old palace to the high-class shopping district at Place Louise. We stopped first for a mid-morning tea and pastries break in a gardened terraced restaurant that was enjoyable.
The high-class stores are in a fairly small area off of Louse Place. They are fronted with a wide sidewalk and I am sure that for those people who know their fashion these stores are what the doctor ordered. But, the dividing line between nice areas and less nice is a sharp one in this city. We had been reminded of this as we came up to the Palais de Justice just before getting to the stores. We walked up from the right of the Palais de Justice and you could clearly see that the neighborhood down and to the right was not nearly as nice. We were however, sort of, able to see the Atominium in the far distance this time.
After walking by the ritzy stores and picking up a Michelin guide which is full of even greater details than the Rough Guide we found our way to a real nice pocket park off of The Sablons which had a central fountain and around its outer edge 48 pedestals (47 statues since one has gone missing) again in bronze with sculpted signs of the crafts who were responsible for them. For example, a tallow maker had a goose in a bottle. Within the park were stone statues of some royalty and other significant people like Mercator.
On the first day we arrived in Brussels we noticed that the central area of the Grand Place was blocked off. Inside the are a design, laid down in tape, could be seen which we were told was part of the flower carpet show. They had lain down the sod that marked edges of the eventual flower display the previous day. We had seen the carpet take shape in the mid afternoon earlier today and when we returned to the Grand Place after a so-so meal we saw it in full bloom. The Grand Place is very nicely illuminated at night and this was the first time we had seen it.
Here are two views of the flower carpet:
This was also the first night of the flower carpet display (held once a year on alternate years I understand) which made the night more special. The flowers are a densely, 300 blooms per square meter (or perhaps it was 300 blooms per meter which would imply 90,000 per square meter—it really depends on whether it is whole flowers or just petals, the former could be fairly large), packed multiple color Begonias. I saw white, yellow, orange, pink, and red blooms laid out in a very pretty decorative (though I do not think symmetrical) design covering 300 square meters. Around the circumference of the display, perhaps every 3 meters, was a large red wax candle in a big red clay pot. At at least one corner a major flower spot with a sizable bouquet stood. On the long edges of the rectangular display (24 x 77 meters I believe) were many foot lights that were able to illuminate the first two yellow (separated by red) rows of flowers that edged the display (the outermost edge was sod). We arrived just before 9:00p.m. and it was beginning to crowd up. Workers were just lighting the candles and two cops were slowly strolling just outside the display beyond the low fence that kept us out ensuring no one jumped the barrier.
As it grew darker the buildings, especially the Hotel de Ville and the one directly across from it were slowly lit. Piano music, which eventually became a bit annoying, was played over a sound system set up in the Hotel de Ville which we were standing in front of. We had managed to get very good ground level spots right at the meter high barrier. Some people were in the balconies and windows of the buildings around the square (rented of course) and they had a view of the whole carpet and later on the complete show, but we were certainly better positioned than many people. Our very rough estimate is that by the time the show began there were perhaps 2,500 to 3,000 people surrounding the flower carpet.
The real show began promptly at 10:00p.m (the piano music had ceased a little before then). All the lights, including the street lights around the edge of Grand Place, went out leaving just the candles burning and Mussorgsky's Picture At An Exhibition began to play. The sound system was not too good. Distorted, clipping, lots of unwanted pressure, but they got it under a semblance of control quickly enough. As the music blared out the lights came up to the music and we saw for the first time the flood lights high in both the Hotel de Ville and the building across from it. Those floods moved to the beat quite well and then the fire works began. Starting at the right spot in the music we were treated to cascades of color that marched along the flower carpet (the flowers must have been quite wet to prevent any smoldering fires). But, the first set of fire works were just a tease. They were quickly followed by fire fountains that shot thousands of sparks dozens of feet into the air. There were quite a few of these fountains, but that was not the end of it since they did not extend the whole length of the flower display. When the fountains dimmed leaving just the candles and perhaps some peripheral lighting mortars began to fire off from each end of the carpet, big colorful blue, green, and red fire works that twinkled as they rose and reached their apex cris-crossing each other. Between the light, the boom of the mortars and the music it was quite stunning. And still the show was not quite complete. As the mortars came to a close and the music came to its final crescendo a couple new fire fountains, more active and taller than before, came to life ending the show with geysers of bright sparks, flood lights dancing, and the music coming to its climax. It was a great five or so minutes of show well worth the hour or so of waiting we had stood through before it began.
Today we planned on visiting a couple places that the Michelin guide had mentioned. Of course first we had our first breakfast at our new hotel. They put out quite a nice spread including coffee, tea, hot milk, corn flakes, orange juice, milk, hard boiled eggs, fruits, various breads and cheese, and more. A far cry from the simpler Continental fair at Hotel Welcome even though it is at its core still Continental.
Our first stop , I think, on the day's walking tour was the Passage du Nord which is one of the cities main covered arcades. While not as grand as the Saint Hubert Royal Galeries it still nice. Sadly most of the stores were not open.
One thing Brussels and Belgium are known for are their comic strips. Our next stop was a museum devoted to this art form. But, the building that houses the museum is worth a visit in its own right. It is a Horta inspired construction which means that it is well lit with natural light, has its share of curves, and is in general a lovely interior space. The building has gone through some tough times and is now in the process of being restored. You can easily see where they have work to do even in basic cleaning and dusting. It takes plenty of time and money to do that sort of work, but they are making progress. I particularly liked the main floor with its granite and iron street lamp that is meant to give the atrium a feel of a city square. As you climb the wide marble stairs with their curved wood balustrades you come up to an upper floor with many displays of comic strips and a floor that is in part made of translucent glass tiles that you can walk upon (we discovered later on that our theory that you could see people , or at least their shadows, walking across those tiles from below). The building also houses a restaurant and library the latter was closed but the former had a nice open elegant feel about it and we had a mid-morning coffee there.
We continued our walk to a house that we could not actually enter but we could still see the influence of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in its exterior lines. We had worked our way out to and then past the ring road to a local park that was, to our eyes, one of the nicer ones we have seen so far. In fact, as we moved outside the ring road we found a few more nice neighborhoods that had a cleaner nicer feel about them. We also went into another covered arcade that is known for having numerous book stores. However, it looks like the arcade is currently on less than smooth ground since many of the store fronts were closed and vacant.
We had lunch in what I think is the EU , or at least part of, quarter after visiting the Autoworld exposition which is in a large museum space in a very pretty museum building that is part of a set of buildings that form a sort of mall. Like so much of Brussels the space between buildings is cobblestone which to our eyes makes things a bit dreary. But, the exposition itself was a nice surprise with many old and some unusual vehicles including old little electric cars, a mobile home from the 20s, an exposed chassis of an old Rolls Royce, and much more. Like the Museum of Ancient and Modern Art this museum was almost completely empty. It is remarkable how little traffic these museums receive. I think even the comic strip museum would have had fewer people if it had not had the restaurant and book store.
After lunch we headed down towards the Palais Royale. We wandered around a few streets in back of the palace which in a couple places had quite a nice feel to them. The palace itself is a huge building. We took a self-guided tour, following the red carpet road, through many of the second floor rooms which are incredibly ornate with very high ceilings, gold leaf everywhere, fantastic chandeliers, and much more. Unlike the palace in Vienna this one feels newer and more ostentatious. One other personal detail worth mentioning only because I saw it cause confusion. They had several computer displays providing all sorts of information about Belgium and its royalty. This was all well and good, but I saw at least one person have major trouble with the display not because they could not get the mouse pointer where they wanted it to be but because once they positioned the pointer they could not figure out how to select their choice. The problem was the L and R buttons below the trackpad. The system used Windows and therefore a two button mouse approach. You click the left button to click the mouse. Given the display gave nothing away about the underlying operating system it is understandable that this would cause confusion especially since the right button would never be used. The upshot of all this is: score one for the Macintosh with its single button approach. Certainly a better user interface design in this case.
After our usual late afternoon siesta we had dinner at a place all the guides recommended. The meals we had were excellent particularly my rack of lamb. I ended my repast with a Crepe Flambe which is something none us had before. Delicious.
We then went off to the Grand Place to check on the flower carpet. It was nearly 10:00p.m. and we hung around, with the milling crowds (though far smaller than the night before) to see what type of show would take place. The music was the same as last night and they had a small light show, but no fire works.
I must say that the night life of Brussels looks fairly full. There are many taverns and cafes with people eating, drinking, laughing, listening to artists perform (some hired by the restaurants), having a good time. There are also street performers of varying degrees of skill and it seems like people are having fun. So, while many areas of the city seem rather quiet during the day people do come out as the sun goes down.
This is our last real vacation day since tomorrow will be devoted to the return home. Today we will take a bus tour of several Art Deco locations in Brussels and go to Waterloo.
The Art Deco tour started at the Hotel metropole at 9:30a.m. and we had a fairly full bus for the English language tour. The 3 hour tour would make 5 stops throughout Brussels.
Our first stop was at the church of Saint John the Baptist which was built in the 1930s during an expansion of congregations. This church used reinforced concrete in much of its design and this was particularly evident once you went inside and could see the parabolic arches stretching across the nave of the church. I especially liked the stain glass windows in this church. Most stained glass depicts pictures that tell a tale. Even if I can see the images I do not know the tales so they do not mean much to me. The glass in this church was colorful abstract patterns. Kaleidoscopic, sometimes reminding me of something a Fractal generator might create, patterns that you could just stare at and contemplate. Even the solid blue patterns that lines the center of the ceiling were pleasing in their way. Also nice, at least to me, was the simplicity of the design of the church. Open and grand, but not ornate. It could be a place to think and wonder about the nature of things. It wasn't designed to overwhelm you with a sense of awe at the sheer wealth of the institution which built it. The exterior of the church was in need of repair. As seems to be true of many parts of Brussels many buildings and neighborhoods had fallen into Disuse and therefore had not been kept up. This is a shame.
Our second stop was a building that used to house an insurance company. The exterior of this buildings actually looked more like Art Nouveau than Art Deco--a deliberate design decision by the designers to make it seem less modern--but we were there for the interior decor. Unfortunately, the building was locked and the person who had the key failed to show. Some sort of miscommunication had taken place it being a national holiday. The neighborhood around this stop is interesting. Many of the buildings used to house just shops in their first floors. The upper floors, at the behest of the merchants, were left unoccupied. The idea was that having apartments above the shops would be a hassle for the store owners. But, this decision made people feel the area was unsafe at night and on the weekends since no one was around. The area fell into decay and became less frequented which, of course, caused the merchants to close up. There has been an attempt in recent years to re-vitalize the area and it may be working. The facades of the buildings are being cleaned up and the are is acquiring a multiple use status that may, in time make it a nice place to live. Certainly the buildings themselves which are a mix of architectural styles are nice enough.
Our third stop brought us to the Residence Palace which was a building we had walked by on a previous day while exploring part of the government (EU) borough of Brussels. The Residence Palace was originally conceived in 1924 (completed in 1928) as an up-scale building that would house what amount to condominiums for the wealthy people who had been moving out of the city. It initially did attract people but even before the Germans took it over in 1939 its lure had begun to fade and it had begun to suffer as a result. Today it is used by armed forces and some ministers and this means none of the original condos remains. What was most striking about this building (actually it may have been several buildings) was its design. Sandstone was used extensively, but to give it a more romantic air lines, denoting cinder blocks, were painted in the solid stone. The feel of the exterior reminded me of buildings on Miami's South Beach which is a haven for Art Deco design. We had really come to this site to see its pool. The pool which is in the basement lacks windows and therefore natural light. But, it makes up for this with decorative designs, some quite substantial, on all the walls. The pool itself, with running water at one end, is a deep blue that is striking in the incandescent light cast by all the lights in its edge. Above the pool are small changing rooms where people can look down on the swimmers. It makes me think of an elegant roman bath in a way even though that image I suppose should conjure up a larger more open area.
During the period between the World War I and II city planners decided that it was important for the less well-to-do classes to be able to live in neighborhoods that were not so jammed together. People should be able to live in areas with greenery and feel able to move around in a space that would give a sense of wealth and prosperity. The Garden Cities , what I think we would call sub-divisions, were born in the 1920s to fill this need. While we were not visiting a Garden City (9 were built and then when German preparations stopped and politicians realized voting patterns were changing to their disadvantage the project ceased) per se we were going to a residential area that was similar though it was meant for more well-to-do residents. Unlike the Garden Cities the houses we saw, many quite individual, were not particularly Art Deco to my eye. The neighborhood though was quite nice, a little island of quiet in the bustling city.
Our final stop was a town hall. Brussels is divided into 19 boroughs each of which has its own town hall. We stopped at the Forest town hall. The interior of this building is striking. The floors are black and white marble, with stained glass lower windows depicting the workers (ambulance driver, fireman, construction, and teacher to name just a few. Many architects of this period did have socialist leanings), high ceilings, and wood panels.
We checked out a few rooms in this town hall. The first, and perhaps the best, was the first room which was, and still is, used for marriage ceremonies. The room, is done in the soft browns of wood (or at least veneer) with light fixtures that featured strong horizontal lines or strong circles, was a lovely contrast to the entrance way. The room where the town council met was not nearly as striking even though its design was similar. Nor was the main hall as interesting to me. Still the building overall was quite nice and I should mention that what I did see of the exterior including the spire was quite nice.
The tour was worth it. We saw parts of the city that we had seen before and though sometimes our opinion of the poor quality of the neighborhoods was reinforced (for example, the neighborhood in which the church was in was in poor shape and the church itself clearly still showed signs of needing exterior work) other areas like the residential neighborhood and the town hall were much better. It seems like areas outside the ring road are maintained better than those inside it. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to the fact that up until fairly recently there have not been any laws on the books to preserve buildings of historic note. Even today such laws are, according to the tour guide, weaker than they should be. Of course, this alone cannot explain why a building like the museum that houses the automobile exposition would have grass growing out of the cracks in its exterior walls, but maybe it is another symptom of the same problem.
After a nice lunch at one of the fast food restaurants in one of the neon-lit streets off the Grand Place where we all enjoyed pitas filled with eastern food we headed out to Waterloo. Getting to Waterloo was a bit more challenging than we had thought it would be. We found the right train but were told by the conductor to get off, for an extra charge which we never did understand since the stop was the first one on the train ride, at Braine L'Alleud which was supposed to be 6km. from the battlefield. From the train station we caught a bus that dropped us off near the battlefield (maybe a 10 minute walk) in much less time than any of us expected (i.e., it did not seem like a 6km. trip). The battlefield itself though once reached was a disappointment. There was a commercial feel to it, certainly heightened by the small go-cart race track you could see from the top of The Mound, that did not set well with us. Also, the signage was lacking to non-existent and it just left us with a sense that we were not getting a feel for the important event that happened there (in direct contrast to a visits to say Gettysburg).
We decided to just climb The Mound (40 francs). Our books refer to this man-made, I think not long after the actual battle, hill as "The Mound". The Mound, called locally Butte du Lion to imbue it with a sense of grandeur that it lacks, is a hill some 120 feet high with a massive iron statue of a lion on the summit. You reach the summit by climbing a single flight of 220 stairs. At the summit you can see the surrounding area, but you have little way of knowing what to look at. Perhaps there are places in the States of similar importance that have received equally short shrift (and I would feel the same way about them) but it is still sad and seems to me to indicate, like the state of many buildings in Brussels, that a sense of history is not very strong in Belgium.
We descended the 220 steps (just one narrow set so people going up and down had to squeeze past each other) and realized we had no idea when the next bus to the train station would be. We decided to walk back. After 20 minutes of brisk walking, perhaps 2.5-3km., we reached the train station just in time to catch the train back to Brussels.
Our excursion to Waterloo was the last event of our trip. We purchased some chocolates as gift for people, and worked our way through the masses of people around the Grand Place back to the Hotel Noga for a short rest before dinner and our final night in Brussels. Owing mainly to the fact that my nose was killing me I had no desire to see if the final (I think) night of the flower carpet event would have anything special to rival the first night. I went straight to sleep and the following morning woke up, if not wholly better, much refreshed. We are now enroute back to the States after completing a very enjoyable European trip of hiking and city visiting.
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