Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Floralia- A Little Piece of the Netherlands in Belgium

Keukenhof is known worldwide for their stunning tulip displays and it is on my list of places to visit while we are living here in Belgium.  Today is a particularly exciting day in Holland as it is Queen's Day and a very special Queen's day, because the Queen is passing the crown on to her son. 

Due to a very late Spring here in Europe (and in the US, from what I hear), rumor has it that Keukenhof, although still beautiful, is not in its prime.  So, I decided that this year was not the year to visit.  So, I jumped on the chance to go Monday afternoon with a group of wives from Dan's unit and check out the Floralia Exhibition at the Castle of Groot-Bijgaarden.  The architects of the exhibit are from the Netherlands.  Even better, this exhibition was less than an hours drive away.

What a stunning display of flowers.  The beautiful 14 hectacre (equal to 35.5 acres) castle grounds were decorated with 500 varieties of flowers, 400 of which were varieties of tulips.   All the bulbs were planted by hand, over 1 million bulbs!

A local retirement home had an outing.  They remind me of a biker gang, with wheelchairs. 

In addition to the gardens was a greenhouse displaying a rotating collection of over 150 flower arrangements (changed each week) and flower beds

No, the colors on your computer are not messed up.  These are muli-color roses.  I wish I knew how they were able to do this

The largest Hydrangeas I have ever seen

A little bit about the castle itself.  Kasteel Groot-Bijgarden (or Castle of Groot-Bijgaarden) is a 12th century castle (that is the 1300s, or a really, really, really long time ago) just outside of Brussels.  For those of you interested in architecture, the castle is considered to be in Flemish Renaissance Style. 

Looking pretty good for being over 700 years old.

The castle is surrounded by a moat spanned by a bridge with five arches (not sure the signifigance of the five arches) leading to a drawbridge and gatehouse (dating from the 14th century). 

Although we couldn't go into the castle (though you can rent it for weddings and special events), we were able to go into the tower (or the dungeon), which was built in 1347.  Not quite a dungeon anymore, the tower housed more floral displays.

Again, turn your head:)  Sorry for the sideways pictures.

As you can see, Ava really enjoyed the flowers as well.

Oh no!  The gang got a hold of Ava. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Ghent: The red-headed stepchild of Belgium

Ghent was a Belgian city I was not overly excited to check out.  People talk about how it is not as lively as Brussels and not as beautiful as Brugges.  I would have to disagree with that completely.  I found Ghent to have the beauty of Brugges, with a totally different energy.  While Brugges is beautiful, its main source of economy is tourism and it shows.  It is a tourist city in every sense.  Ghent is a living city.  I felt it had the energy of a big city with the charm and feel of a small town. 

My only "to do" for our visit was to check out the Saint Bavo Cathedral (or the Flemish, Sint Baafskathedraal).  This church is a "must see" because of its famous altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, thought of as one of the greatest Belgian masterpieces.  This altarpiece faced many challenges over the years, but lives on.  First, during the Protestant Revolution the altarpiece was hidden in the tower for safekeeping.  Later, during World War II, the altarpiece was on its way to the Vatican for safe keeping when it was confiscated by the Germans and swiped by Hitler.  It was later rescued by US Forces (go USA!) at the war's end. 

Unfortunately, I did not take any pictures of the cathedral.  The outside was under construction and I never feel comfortable taking pictures inside cathedrals.  I did pull this two photos of the altarpiece and the outside of the cathedral off of Wikipedia. 

The Adoration of the Hold Lamb, closed.  The altarpiece could be displayed opened or closed.  This is the closed outside, which was traditionally displayed on weekdays and Saturdays.
The Adoration of the Holy Lamb, opened.  The inside was only shown on Sundays.  During the 19th century, Adam and Eve were given clothes to wear. 

This photo was most likely taken from the Belfry which is located directly across the square from the church.  Here is a photo of the Belfry.  You can get to the top via some stairs and an elevator, but we didn't feel it was worth the 5 euro price tag.  The Belfry has stood in this location since the 14th century, but the top sphere was added for the World's Fair of 1913.  The Belfry was originally built to house and protect the parchment record of the privileged class.

The dragon on the top symbolizes not the Devil (which was typical in the Middle Ages), but a protector who watches over the city's rights.
After leaving the church, we ducked into an alley, which once was used to drain water from the high ground.  Its nickname is Graffitistraat (graffiti street).  This street is designated by the city as a legal place for graffiti artists to display their work.  Halfway through the lane is a "hidden" fenced-in park.
Dan and Ava are looking into the park.  I thought it was so interesting juxtaposed with the graffiti. 

The rest of the day was spent wandering around pedestrian streets, shopping and marveling at the city's beauty. 

In the summer I would like to take one of the boat tours
Ava looks thrilled; she had a great time, I swear.

The Castle of the Counts (Gravensteen).  This castle was built in 1180 not to protect the people, but to intimidate the city's people.  If you go inside you can see a torture museum as well as the dungeon (all part of the intimidation).  We plan to head inside on a return trip. 

Saint Michael's Bridge
You known you are in beer country when you see a tour like this one.  The riders are all around a bar with beer on tap.  It is hard to tell, but the riders are actually moving the car by peddling at their barstools.

On our way to Saint Michael's Bridge we stumbled upon this awesome market where we sampled quite a bit of cheese and some delicous Italian pastries.  We were so distracted by this market that we never made it to the bridge.  Oh well, maybe next time. 

French cheeses- Side note, Ava is turning into a major cheese snob.  She turns her nose at American and Cheddar cheese, preferring gruyere or gouda.

That man is slicing prosciutto and cheese to make sandwiches on the bread you see.  Heavenly.

Who needs Dunkin Donuts?  That is a cream filled donut. 

Are you feeling hungry yet?

Dan and I look forward to making more visits to this city as we feel we barely scratched the surface.  We even spotted a hotel where we we like to stay for a date night.  Maybe that will be something we can do when Grandma and Grandpa visit (hint, hint).