Sunday, December 28, 2008

Belgium: Part 1

Xander: So where were you? Did you go to Belgium?
Buffy: Why would I go to Belgium?
Xander: I think the relevant question is: Why wouldn't you?

Why wouldn't you indeed? Belgium was great. What a great holiday. We went to Brugge, Leuven, and Brussels. There will be a jillion photos, so I'll break this into parts. Have your imaginary passport ready, here we go...

We caught the Eurostar train to Belgium. I'm trying to keep my footprint as low possible, which is pretty much the only reason that I'm not jetting off to a different European location each weekend. The Eurostar not only has the lower fuel usage of ground travel, but it's also carbon neutral. That's pretty cool. It was a good way to travel. A lot better than air travel. The part going through the Chunnel took 34 minutes, and the total from London to Brussels was about 2 hours. I'm really surprised that it's so quick.

I've changed the template to try and stop Blogger from truncating the photos. If you want, just follow the jump. There are also some pictures there that I haven't linked to on the blog:

The ticket to Brussels gives you free travel anywhere within Belgium, so we went straight to Brugge. We had dinner, stayed there for the night, and roamed around. Here's the meal we had. Mine was a fairly average pasta, but my brother had a fantastic scampi dish. We asked the chef and he said it was flavoured with the drink Ricard (it had an aniseed flavour). Note the frites to the left and Belgian beer to the right.

A Brugge square at night

A Brugge sweet shop

Another lit square

Gatehouse over the canal

One of the four windmills on the outer canal

House on the canal

Shop with lights

Organ grinder on the street (those liberal Europeans)

Horse carriage in the main square

Brugge from the belltower (I)

Brugge from above (II)

Brugge from above (III)

Brugge from above (IV)

Another of the windmills

A tower

Buildings on a canal

More houses on a canal

Locals walking among the old buildings

Christmas market

Decorations in the hotel garden

Mirror image in a canal

The reason that Brugge has remained so historic-looking is a little tricky to decern. Centuries ago, people left the city. Lonely Planet is woefully vague on the reason why. Wikipedia is little better, but seems to attribute it to silting of the river. Anyway, they've maintained the appearance in modern times. However, I guess they are still building too:

Cranes on the Brugge skyline

More to follow.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

King's Chapel

Okay, it turns out that wasn't my last post before we leave - that was a complete lie. Here are a few shots of King's Chapel in Cambridge from today's walk.

Most of them suffer from my usual problem with Blogger, that they don't fit on the screen correctly. Either click the wider ones, or to see them in a halfway decent size, jump to my Photoshare site at

Stained glass window

The vaulted ceiling

The wider chapel

The organ pipes

Patterns from the stained glass windows

An array of candles

Light flaring through old windows

King Edward's lectern

Candle jar in front of stained glass

Another shot of the wider chapel

BoldThe entrance to Queen's College

I can't remember if I've already posted a picture of this, and it's too late at night for me to go trawling back through old posts. Pretend it's new...
The entrance to the classical style Fitzwilliam Museum

Holiday holiday holiday!

A few things:

We've just watched the new episode of Flight of the Conchords. It's up on Funny or Die. If you're outside the US, you need to route it through a proxy server. It's so great to have them back. Interestingly, I can now hear the New Zealand accents.

My brother is just gettting prepped, and then we'll head out to explore Cambridge a bit. Should be a good day.

We leave for Belgium tomorrow. I see that today, the Belgian government has collapsed. My bad.

In addition, here's a graph of the value of the pound vs the Euro. See if you can spot the point at which I decided to visit Europe:

I would like to wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy new year, but I feel that, with my world-travelling experience and new insights, that would be superficial. I have a deeper appreciation of what's important now. So instead, let me just say "May all your toilets flush on the first attempt".

My job seems to be safe now. Catch you after Belgium.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

London Calling

Last Sunday I took the train down to London. I had some time to kill, so I roamed the south bank of the Thames. I feel that I've done quite a few of the more obvious attractions in London, so I've set myself the goal of finding a Banksy painting in the wild.

I expect you've heard the name before. Banksy is a graffiti artist. He's also renowned for sneaking his works into art galleries where they've sometimes hung for several days. I've read his latest book a couple of times and recommend it. I don't have a lot of respect for artists who just create a random mess and call it art: I reckon I create the equivalent of a Jackson Pollock every time I blow my nose. But despite being stylistically simple, Banksy's work is really pretty clever. One of the ones I was looking for is a stencil piece on the Thames wall across the river from Big Ben. It is one of the more photographed spots in London, and Banksy stencilled the wall with the phrase "This is not a photo opportunity".

The problem with finding his works is two-fold. Firstly, the London councils tend to take a dim view of all graffiti and paint over them. Secondly, now that he has achieved notoriety, his work is extremely valuable. When a new piece appears, the owners of the wall often cover it with boards to protect it and then sell the entire wall. On a recent visit to London, Christina Aguilera spent 25,000 pounds on his work.

There used to be quite a few pieces around the south bank, but I couldn't find any. Actually, I couldn't find any graffiti at all. Since it is pretty much "tourist central", the cleaning seems pretty comprehensive.

The reason I was in London is that my brother is over here at the moment. We went to the World Press Photography exhibit at the Southbank Centre and then had GBK for dinner. It was good to catch up.

I took Thursday off work and spent another day in London with him. We went to St Pauls, which was a good visit but very expensive. The quality of the acoustics in the Whispering Gallery was the high point. I then took my brother to Bride Lane, which supposedly had a surviving Banksy. Like fun it did. All the walls were clean, and you could see the patches where works had been cleaned off. Nuts. I'm going to have to go further afield. Stay tuned for more Banksy-based exploration.

We caught the DLR out to Greenwich. We went to see the Cutty Sark. It was seriously damaged by fire recently, and is now completely walled off for repairs. Still, we managed to find a crack in the wall and could see a small portion of the boat's framework. I'm going to tick that one off my list, because to a non-nautically interested person such as myself, that's about as interesting as the Cutty Sark is going to be.

We then went to the Royal Observatory, the Planetarium, the Queen's House, and the National Nautical Museum. The Nautical Museum was most impressive - they had Nelson's uniform from Trafalgar, including musket ball hole and blood stains. England: Once again the quality of your preserved relics has knocked my socks off. Speaking of which, they also had Nelson's bloodstained socks. Incidentally, can anyone answer this: I thought Nelson was missing an eye, an arm, and a leg, but my brother says only the eye and arm. Who's right?

So, that's the current state of play. It was brilliant hanging out with someone from home. Normally, I'm the only one on the Tube carriage who sniggers when the voice announces "This train terminates at Cockfosters". My brother's currently in Ireland, but he'll be back on Friday to be my first guest here in Cambridge, before we head to Belgium on the Eurostar train for Xmas. This will be my first proper trip since I got here. I can't wait. If we're lucky, we might even get some snow.

I'll try to post again before we go, but just in case I don't, I hope that those of you in NZ for Xmas also get snow. Lots of it.

More photos after Belgium, I promise.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Post Tripped

I want my weekend back.

Firstly, I'm not certain that Saturday even counts as a day. If it doesn't get light, that's not a day, it's just a 40 hour long night. When I first told people I was moving to England, they all gleefully told me about the long, dark Winters. I haven't really minded the dark so far. It doesn't matter when it gets dark, if I'm stuck in an office all day. It can get dark at lunch for all I care.

But this wasn't just a case of it getting dark at 3:30pm. It was freezing cold, with pea-soup fog all day. It never got light at all. Cars were driving around with their lights on at lunch. That's just wrong.

Whatever the conditions, I had a job to do. I donned my woolley hat, mittens, neck gator, Winter jacket, and boots, and - with my glasses rapidly misting - I strode forth. I finished my Xmas shopping, got back home, wrapped the presents, and headed back into town to the post office. The POs are closed on Sundays, so I had to get this finished by 5:30 on Saturday. Racing against the clock, I got to the shop, bought a parcel box, presents wouldn't fit, bought a larger box, bundled it up to the counter and asked for the postage cost. I was hoping to get some change from a 10 pound note.

54 pounds. 54 freakin' pounds. When the guy at the counter said "54 pounds", I actually made a BOOF sound, like I'd been punched in the guts. I'm sorry Mum and Dad. I love you, but...54 pounds? I'll take photos of your presents and emailed them to you. Remember, it's the thought that counts.

I flashed the guy my "go on, be a pal" smile, but I'd eaten a German hotdog for lunch at the market, and I probably had dessicated pork bits in my braces. It didn't convince him to lower the cost any.

{Mental note. Remember to phone my agent RE: possible new Bond villain - Wursttooth. A porcine-dentured malcontent driven insane by the English postal service and trychinosis.}

After my recent entry about the absence of school exercise books, my Mum kindly sent me one. Because I live in a row of terraced flats, we have a mail slot in the door. The postman folded the parcel in half and crammed it through the slot. English postal service: You all around totally suck.


Maybe I'm being melodramatic about the weather. I've just spotted a little grey squirrel running around in the garden. I thought all the squirrels had flown south for the Winter by now, but this one's out there, doing the hard yards, fighting the elements, and he just did a big power dive from the tree to the top of the fence. He's the Richie McCaw of the squirrel world.

Wasn't there a Beatrix Potter story where all the squirrels walled Squirrel Nutkin up in his hole to starve? How horrific. How come Richard III became a villain for doing that, but Beatrix Potter is a beloved children's author?

Speaking of rugby, I forgot the game. When I remembered, I only lasted for 1 minute before I got bored. I'm a bad, bad patriot.

No photos this week. Norwich is going to have to wait. With all the good will in the world, I'm not going out that door if the excursion has to be akin to Amundsen's. No one wants to read a blog post featuring the phrases "frostbiten stumps" and "frozen cadaver".

{Monday update: Split the package into 2 parcels and sent them. 24 pounds total. Not too bad. Smashed my previous Christmas preparedness record by 24 days.}