Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sintra, Portugal

A short train ride outside of Lisbon is Sintra, a beautiful city nestled at the foot of rolling, tree-covered hills. The area, The Cultural Landscape of Sintra, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its many sites and architectural excellence. It also features a subtropical microclimate and is extremely green and lush.

In the city itself, we visited Sintra Palace, built from 1415 onwards and continuously inhabited from the early 15th to late 19th centuries. Significant Islamic artistic influence, most notably tilework, is evident in Sintra Palace and many other buildings in Lisbon and Sintra.

The castles built on the hillsides were the real stars of the show, though. Laura and I rented electric bikes - they require peddling but a motor kicks in to make climbing steep hills easier - and headed to higher ground.

Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors)

Pena Palace

At the Monastery dos Capuchos

Monserrate Palace

The view from the hill-tops in Sintra was incredible! Sintra unexpectedly vaulted into our list of favorite places we visited in Europe; if you're ever in the area, don't overlook this gem. You can see more of our pictures from Sintra on Flickr!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Lisbon, Portugal

Now let's rewind to the beginning of June, when Laura and I spent a week in Lisbon, Portugal while I attended an engineering conference at the Instituto Superior Técnico. I include the university's name here simply because it sounds really cool; the picture at left is a completely unrelated building near the Parque das Nações (Nations Park), built for the 1998 World Fair's (or "Expo") in Lisbon.

I don't have a lot to say about Lisbon because frankly, I spent most of my time inside a series of conference rooms. Meanwhile, Laura did quite a bit of exploring and you can see her pictures on Flickr. She walked all over the city, visited an aquarium, took a chair lift ride, etc.

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The rooftops of Lisbon

Lisbon is a reasonably safe city, and Laura didn't have any trouble when she was out and about by herself. When we were together, on the other hand, I found myself fending off drug dealers at every turn. If you ever visit Lisbon, don't be surprised if you're approached, even on a busy street in daytime, and indiscreetly asked if you'd like to buy some "hash." Say no, even in a suitably revolted fashion, and they'll assume you're holding out for coke. Then it's time to run away.

While in Portugal we were determined to experience fado, a type of Portuguese music that I would describe as operatic; Wikipedia's adjective of choice is mournful, which is also accurate. We picked a restaurant with fado and enjoyed being serenaded by a procession of men and women of all ages, sometimes with guitar accompaniment. It's a truly unique experience to sit outside a restaurant in Lisbon, eating cod or some such thing while an elderly Portuguese woman croons what may be the world's saddest music from a nearby doorway or balcony.

The afternoon after the conference was over, Laura and I also went to the Lisbon Zoo, which was a lot of fun. We saw the usual giraffes, zebras, hippos, rhinos, monkeys, bears (at right) etc. The coolest animals we saw were the sea lions, though, who put on quite a show at their feeding and then joined a dolphin show to do more tricks. At one point during the show, the trainers actually walked the sea lions into the seating area of the ampitheater, into a row of seats, and then they circled the whole place. Seriously: Laura and I had to move out of the way when a sea lion came barreling through our seats. It was cool.

A bizarre pet cemetery at the Lisbon Zoo; RIP "Gigi"

We were able to get really close to the giraffes

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Nationale Park De Hoge Veluwe

After seeing Rotterdam on Laura's last Friday in the NL, we set off the next day for Het Nationale Park De Hoge Veluwe (Hoge Veluwe National Park) near Arnhem. We had been told time and again by Dutch friends that this was a site we needed to see. (By the way: Unless you're Dutch, however you're attempting to pronounce Hoge Veluwe is almost certainly wrong.)

Hoge Veluwe National Park is an interesting assembly of forests, sand dunes, heathland, bicycle paths, and, randomly enough, a high-quality art museum. Despite being in an isolated and unexpected location, the Kröller-Müller Museum, which was formed from the art collection of German-born Helene Kröller-Müller, contains the work of many famous artists including van Gogh, Picasso, Mondrian, Seurat, and Gauguin.

St. Hubertus Hunting Lodge, former home of the Kröller-Müller family.

We spent a day biking around in the park in nice weather. We didn't see any of the deer, boar, mouflon, or other animals that call the park home, unfortunately. Great tits (at right) were nowhere to be seen, either. But we greatly enjoyed the park and its miles of bike trails that snake over rapidly changing and scenic terrain.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Rotterdam (At Last)

On Laura's final weekend in The Netherlands, we stopped for a night in nearby Rotterdam. Although Rotterdam is only a little farther from Delft than The Hague and MUCH closer than Amsterdam, we went nearly a full year without really venturing into the city. (Well, we tried to see the city back in winter, but were confronted with wind so cold that we basically walked out of the train station and right back into it.)

Rotterdam doesn't get the international pub of Amsterdam or The Hague, but it has some bragging points. It's always in competition for "busiest port in the world," though Wikipedia says it is currently second to Shanghai. It's also known as a tremendously young city - sometimes called the youngest in Europe - and is the 2009 European Youth Capital. Also, there's a bit of a rivalry between Rotterdam and Amsterdam that is manifested primarily on the soccer field.

A vast majority of Rotterdam was destroyed in May of 1940 when Germany invaded the Netherlands. Since the war ended, Rotterdam has been the center of a lot of architectural experimentation, which makes it both strikingly modern in some respects and obscenely ugly in others. (The Netherlands is in fact a modern architectural epicenter, and it wasn't long ago that I encountered a whole train car full of US architecture students touring the country.) The part of Rotterdam that all the guidebooks tell you to see is Delfshaven, which is the historical part that looks like every other city in the Netherlands. Now, I like the canal looks of this country a lot, but to those guidebook writers I have to ask, "Why am I going to go to Rotterdam, unique for the fact that it doesn't look like every other Dutch city, to see the part of it that does?" (Delfshaven wasn't one of our stops, though I'm sure it's nice.)

Our visit centered on the waterfront, which we saw by pannenkoek boot - that's "pancake boat," a boat that serves pancakes. The pancakes were mediocre but the view was very nice, with towering, colorful buildings and creative bridges. We set off from next to the Euromast (above right), the tallest structure in Rotterdam. We didn't go inside it, but it offers food and drink, a panoramic view of the city, and various creative ways for visitors to plummet from the tower's apex.

Erasmusbrug ("Erasmus Bridge"), nicknamed "The Swan"

We were particularly excited to stay in the "cube houses" one of the aforementioned architectural experiments that was recently converted into a StayOK hostel. As you can imagine from their shape and unconventional orientation relative to the earth's gravitational field, the rooms are awkward. (That doesn't make staying in one any less cool.)

Cube Houses

Near to the Cube Houses in Oude Haven, we had a nice view of the harbor area while we enjoyed some Heinekens.

Willemsbrug is near to Erasmusbrug and both span the Nieuwe Maas

Witte Huis ("White House"), the tallest "skyscraper" in Europe when it was built in 1898

You can find a few more pictures on Flickr.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Goodbye, Amsterdam

I can't imagine that there are many cities in the world that can match the personality of Amsterdam. It is an endlessly entertaining place with its unique canal-house looks, frenetic pace, diverse culture, and a population of people who are dedicated to walking their own path in life. It's an awesome city, and speaking from experience, it grows on you every time you emerge from Amsterdam Centraal and look out over the narrow, crooked buildings.

I'm leaving the country in two weeks, so yesterday I went to Amsterdam for the last time. I spent the day enjoying the sunshine, the crowds, and the atmosphere. I went to the Amsterdam History Museum to learn a little more about the history of the city. I walked miles and miles. I watched street performances. I paid €3 at Cannabis College to stand in front of a 5 foot tall cannabis plant just for the novelty of it. I laughed at Darth Vader and the Grimm Reaper and Batman on Dam Square. I walked the streets of the revived Jordaan, the neighborhood that many of the 100,000 Jews killed by the Nazis, including Anne Frank herself, called home. I slipped into an art gallery showcase and admired the urban artwork. I ate an awesome Ethiopean dinner, in which I scooped my food from the plate with Injera bread and drank my Ethiopean beer from a coconut shell.

Yeah, I'm going to miss Amsterdam.

Outside the Jordaan.

A [legal] cannabis plant.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bratislava, Slovakia

The 13th and final country on our European adventure turned out to be Slovakia, though only because Vienna and the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava, are the two closest European capitals. They're separated by only about 50 miles or around an hour train ride. We couldn't pass up the chance to jump off from Vienna (sometimes called the "Gateway to the East") to go east behind the former iron curtain - always fascinating - another time (previous times being Prague and East Berlin).

Bratislava borders both Austria and Hungary and is split by the Danube, which as you'll recall from the last post was bursting from its shores at the time of our visit. At right you see the Nový Most ("New Bridge") straddling the river, with its famous "UFO" restaurant on top.

Laura and I didn't have any significant plans for Bratislava other than to walk around, get a feel for the place, and take advantage of cheap Eastern European food and drink. (On that note, Slovakia just recently converted to the Euro in January.) We briefly walked up the hill to Bratislava Castle, which provided an excellent view of the city. Below you see the spire of St. Martin's Cathedral.

St. Martin's Cathedral

The view also afforded us a glimpse of the many identical Soviet-era panelák (or panel buildings) on the other side of the Danube. These are pre-fabricated concrete buildings that provide a hideous addition to many city skylines in the former Eastern Bloc. You can find a picture of Slovak panelák on Wikipedia.

Meanwhile, the old parts of Bratislava were very attractive and inviting. Below you see Michael's Gate (at center), built around 1300. The streets were lined with sidewalk cafes and people happily enjoying the sunny weather.

Michael's Gate

We also stumbled by a market for artisans and those hocking tourist swag during out walk through the city (seen below).

Small Market

This statue of a jovial Napoleonic soldier was a favorite of ours. He's like an old chum when you lean over the bench with him, but he's just a creepy Frenchman when he is leaning over your shoulder.

Napoleonic Soldier

You can find more pictures from Bratislava at Flickr.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


During our visit to Vienna, we used the city as a home base to see some other nearby sites. Our first day trip was to nearby Melk, Austria, a sleepy and picturesque town located right on the Danube River (at right) and known for Melk Abbey. Below you see two views of the colorful city, one from a high point and another from street level. Laura and I enjoyed walking the streets of the quiet town and of course happily stopped for a quiet lunch at a sidewalk cafe.

Melk Abbey was quite a site to behold. Although an abbey has been on the spot for many centuries, the structure seen today was built in the early 1700's in Baroque style. Due to recent restoration, the brightly colored abbey gleams, and the ornate stylings occasionally give way to some surprisingly modern interior exhibits involving neon lights and lots of glass.

Melk Abbey

A statue just inside the entrance

Melk Abbey also contained some very nice gardens, through which we took a stroll.

Grounds of Melk Abbey

Melk is an incredibly picturesque town, and we have many more photographs that you can see on Flickr. Wikipedia also has some very nice pictures of the interior of Melk Abbey.

In returning to Vienna, we had planned to take a Danube River boat for part of the trip, but we were startled to discover the entire region was in the midst of some heavy flooding. The Czech Republic saw the worst of it, but even the Danube River in Melk was nearly bursting from its shores. I read that the Albertina Museum in Vienna - where we didn't personally see any obtrusive effects of the heavy rains - even had to relocate some stored paintings from a leaky underground storage area.

The boats in Melk, of course, were not running on that day, so we took the train back to Vienna.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Fietstocht naar het strand (Bike trip to the beach)

The weather today was absolutely phenomenal: sunny, maybe even 80°F! Naturally, there was no better place to go than nearby Scheveningen Beach in The Hague, especially since today Schollenpop, a free pop music festival, was being held there. Apparently the entire population of the Netherlands had the same idea.

North Scheveningen from De Pier

I didn't really know where the music festival was and figured I would hear it when I arrived, but this was not so. (Hey, it's a big beach.) While looking for it, I was easily sidetracked into exploration. In the past, Laura and I have basically visited the central portion of the beach, but this time I ventured to the north side where everything starts getting glitzy. I walked, for instance, over the top of De Pier, an interesting pier/shopping mall/casino/bungee jumping structure. (Yes, that is a person dangling on the end of that bungee line in the picture at right.)

It naturally turned out that the music festival was on the complete opposite side of the beach from me, and in fact was not even accessible via the beach itself. In a country with tons of waterways, dikes, etc., this situation often happens: you're standing at point A and you can see point B - heck, you might even be able to talk to someone at point B - but you've got to ride a mile to get there. When I finally did arrive, there was decent music, abundant sunshine, and cheap beer. Life was good.


After tiring of the beach, I made my way back home (by bike) through The Hague, which is probably the least fun city to ride a bike through in all of the Netherlands because it is really spread-out and has lots of car traffic. This results in bicycles, like cars, having to stop at lights every ten seconds. Luckily, the Hague is a particularly cultured city that features some kind of sculpture or memorial at roughly those same intervals. On the Lange Voorhout (a famous street in town), for instance, I saw some cool sculptures by Mexican artist Javier Marín.

It was a nice day in the sunshine. When I got home, I thought I'd end it by picking out a nice dinner at the grocery store. I settled on what I thought from the picture on the package to be a ready-made shrimp stir fry. Unfortunately, when I got it home, I discovered I had bought 400g (that's 0.8 lbs!) of frozen crawfish. Lessons learned:
  1. This (bad karma) is what I get for not putting more effort into learning Dutch
  2. Rivierkreeftjes is Dutch for crawfish.
  3. Don't ever eat 0.8 lbs of crawfish in one sitting again.


For our last sojourn outside The Netherlands, Laura and I visited Wien, Österreich - better known in non-German circles as Vienna, Austria. The name Österreich literally means "Eastern Empire" and like everything we saw there, hearkens back to the days of the Hapsburg family and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As Bill Bryson says in Neither Here Nor There, "No one clings to former glories as the Austrians do..." This is evident in the grandeur that permeates much of the city center, from the palaces to the prominent monuments to national heroes like Mozart. (Another famous Austrian whose name popped up proudly and frequently was, of course, Sigmund Freud.)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

While in Vienna we were pleased to see several palaces. Below you see Laura standing in front of the Belvedere Palace, which houses the Austrian Gallery. We also visited the impressive Hofburg Palace, whose interior we viewed as part of an exhibit centered on the lives of Emperor Franz Joseph (1830-1916) and his wife Empress Elizabeth of Bavaria, or Sisi (1837-1898). Sisi was beautiful, mostly absentee, and was assassinated in Geneva in 1898. Since that time the image of the beautiful and mysterious empress has been romanticized, usually for economic gain. Franz Joseph was still emperor when his heir, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914 and the dominoes of WW I began to fall. He died before seeing Austria's defeat.

Laura in front of Belvedere Palace

The dome of Hofburg Palace

Wien is also a little famous (or infamous) for its wine, which we happily sipped at local heurigen (wine gardens). In the mid-80's Austria found itself at the center of a scandal when it was discovered that many wine producers were using anti-freeze (ethylene glycol) as a wine sweetener. Today, all of that has been cleaned up and we were able to enjoy our wine in a very nice outdoor atmosphere without worry of side effects like nausea and death.

During our exploration of Vienna, we also happened upon the opening weekend of the Music Film Festival at Vienna City Hall Park. The festival features free nightly film and music events for nearly two months (ending August 30th). There is also a tremendously cool "food circus" on location, containing some 20+ different cuisine offerings. Everything was there - Italian, Japanese, Turkish, Indian, Australian, Mexican, just to name a few - and Laura and I had such a hard time deciding that we went back more than once. This was more than a glorified fair atmosphere; the event was decidedly upscale and everything was of extremely high quality, with no paper plates or plastic silverware to be found, for example. Below you see the huge movie screen erected in front of the town hall surrounded by seating for 3000+ people. (The Viennese really know how to do summer entertainment.)

Many of Vienna's best sites are located in and around the Ringstrasse (Ring Road), so in addition to riding the tram around the ring, we also borrowed some of Vienna's city bikes (found at racks throughout the city) to ride it at a more leisurely pace. Below are a few pictures we took. The first is a monument to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a famous German writer. Next you see St. Stephen's Cathedral; the nifty roof was rebuilt in 1952 following WWII fire damage. Finally, one site that I found particularly interesting was the Soviet-built Soviet War Memorial, which honors Red Army soldiers who died in the Vienna Offensive. It is not particularly beloved in Vienna and has many alternate names, most notably "Memorial of the Unknown Rapist."

Soviet War Memorial