Sunday, January 24, 2010

Porto, Portugal

I found a cheap ticket and decided to spend the weekend soaking up the sun in Porto, Portugal. The sunny weather, warm breezes, and blue sky was a welcome change from the grey, cold weather to be expected this time of the year in Rotterdam. Porto is an ancient city located along the coast. The terrain is rugged with many streets quite steep and houses built clinging to cliffs. Running along the base of the city is the Douro River- wide, slow moving and perfect for reflecting the city. Many of the buildings in the historic section of the city are many hundreds of years old (I saw some with dates back to the 1700s) and most had some decorative tile coving the outside. Porto has not suffered from the massive fires and wartime bombing that have erased the history of so many other European cities. The streets are narrow and twisting and lined with all sorts of interesting shops. The lack of chain stores meant that small, traditional family owned stores continue to flourish. The butcher has whole pigs hanging in the window, the baker has flour on his hands, and the fruit seller only stocks what is best this time of year.

I was lucky to be joined on my weekend expedition by Tom, a friend and colleague who has proved to be an agreeable traveling companion on previous trips over the years to Berlin and Brussels. Travel is always more fun when you have someone of like mind to share it with.
The day started with a coffee in Café Majestic on the pedestrian shopping mall Rue de Santa Catarina, a historic eatery with a stunning interior. Mirrors and chandeliers and statues are framed by marble and carved wood and velvet. The waiters all wear tuxedos. It is a throwback to Parisian Cafes of a hundred years ago.
We then walked a few blocks to the chaotic Bolhao Market. Fresh fruit, seafood, meats, and just about anything else you could want were on offer. The market has been operating in this location for many, many years and you could imagine that it has not changed much. Some interesting sights: An old woman using a hatchet to split a pigs foot for a customer to enable easier cooking; mounds of garlic, some braided; piles of oranges which proved delicious; and piles of fish caught that morning.
A short distance from the Bolhao Market is the Avia da dos Alindos, a plaza stretching five blocks which is surrounded by beautifully ornate buildings covered in sculptures. The city hall sits on the north end of the plaza and can not fail to impress. It is here that the decay of the city also comes into clear view. Some of the most beautiful buildings have broken windows and pigeons residing inside. The glory days of Portugal were over 400 years ago during the golden era of exploration.

After winding through the streets of cobblestone and heading down towards the river, we came to the Sao Francisco Church. Started in the year 1210 and not completed until the 1400’s, this building is incredible. The walls are covered with hundreds of wood sculptures plated in gold. The sculptures depict various biblical stories and are incredible in their detail and beauty. I was not as impressed by the lack of stained glass windows and by the very plain catacombs. This is certainly one of the oldest buildings I have seen up close. It is hard to imagine what combination of luck, strength, and care allowed this building to survive so many years in such good condition. No photos are allowed in the church, so unfortunately you now will have to go to Porto to see for yourself.
No trip to Porto is complete without a river cruise. The city is beautiful when viewed from the river with steep cliffs rising up and small houses clinging to the sides. The bright colors bring South America to mind, though really South America is most likely an imitation of this part of the world. The fifty minute cruise passed under six high-level bridges and took us all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

My stomach told me that it was time to eat and what more appropriate dish to eat than seafood. We walked around looking for the right place, but so many restaurants were loaded with tourists and did not grab me. Finally in desperation we walked down a little alley filled with the sounds of locals sitting in doorways and kids playing. Down Rue de Forte Taurina we found the Restaurante Adega do Conde, a family run establishment in a small, ancient building. We ordered the Rice with Monkfish and Prawns for two. It came in a deep pot brimming with a seafood broth. The prawns and monkfish were incredibly delicate and fresh. With a bottle of house wine it made an excellent meal and my favorite memory of Porto.

Along the river is a street called the Cais Da Ribeira that is lined with very old buildings on one wide and the river on the other. It is the hip place in the city with a variety of restaurants and bars and lots of outdoor seating. It looks like it used to be an old warehouse area which has been repurposed over the last couple hundred years.
Looming over the city is the Dom Luis I Bridge, called the Eifel Tower of Porto. It is an elegant, iron structure with two levels hundreds of feet apart. We walked over the bridge to the far side of the river where the Port Wine manufacturers are located.

Port Wine is named after is home of Porto, having been grown and produced here for hundreds of years. There are manufacturers and warehouses lined along the shore. A few miles up the Duoro River is where the vineyards are location. Small bars offer Port and chocolate tastings. We decided to take a tour and tasting with one of the larger manufacturers, Sandeman, which was established in 1790. The tour took us through the dark cellars full of barrels of varying sizes. Port is a fortified wine that is best aged. The better ports are aged between 10 and 40 years. The tour was ok, certainly not as good as some of the winery tour I experienced in Napa Valley, but it was still fun and it was nice to try two of their ports - a white and an aged tawny. I liked the tawny more than expected and it inspired me to try some more ports in the future.

After waiting out a rain storm in a little bar nibbling olives and cheese for what turned out to be dinner, we headed back to the hotel for an early bedtime. We had to be up at 4am for our flight at 6, the downside of the cheap flight!

A Far Country

On my assignment here in the Netherlands I have many quiet meals and nights alone in my hotel room. As a result, I have been reading books at a rate of two per week. This week I finished a novel that I found in the Hilton lounge titled "A Far Country" by Daniel Mason. The book essentially was about migration forced by hunger. There was a passage that really struck me. It spoke to my fears of one day seeing my knowledge and skills lose value in our rapidly changing world.

"She had a vertiginous sensation that she was back in Prince Leopold, on the days the men of her village met the foremen from the road companies, the construction firms, or the big coastal plantations.

What can you do? the foremen would ask, and the men tallied off on heavy callused fingers: I can hunt, I can track, I can walk through the night without stopping.

Then the foremen shook their heads and said, Why would I need a hunter when I have cattle plantations? What else can you do? I can turn a grindstone in a sugar mill, I can cut, I can carry pounds of cane.

But the sugar mills are going, it's all factories now, What's worth a couple oxen and a millstone in the new age? I always was a farmer, I can farm even the worst, I can dig and find fertile soil where others see only stone, nowhere is there land I can not grow.

That means little on the coast where the great fields give two crops every year, We need men who know fertile land, not that worthless land of yours, Tell me, man, what else can you do? I can gather stones, make walls, homes.

Stones? I know which cactus to eat, and the leaves from which trees, I know how to collect ants and cook them, I know where starch roots are found.

These are skills for scavengers. I can grow corn, manioc, yams.

On your little farm, you mean, you can grow those on your little farm, But no one has need for little farms anymore, Tell me, man, what else can you do?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Brugge and Antwerp, Belgium

This post has been guest written by the lovely Mrs. Kaizar.

I am honored to be the first “guest blogger” for the Kaizar Dispatch! After the long flight and short train ride, I joined Mike in Rotterdam last week. Mike had a “surprise” dinner planned for me, so I braved the icy streets to meet him about 20 blocks away. As Mike has mentioned before, the Netherlanders do not know how to deal with winter water. People had been walking on the snow for quite some time, and I imagine they were surprised when the resulting slush all turned to a fairly thick, but smooth and slick layer of ice. I had several close calls, but arrived at our rondevous point dry and on two feet. Unfortunately, it was so cold that Mike's clever surprise -- a cruise on the Pannenkoekenboot (Pancake boat) -- was canceled. So we will have to try again in March, since the pancakes here are awesome. They are about half way between a pancake and a crepe. There is also something called Poffertjes, which are my new favorite food. They are made from pancake batter (spiced with cinnamon?), but cooked in a special pan so that they are a little bigger than an American quarter, but very puffy and moist. Sprinkle some powdered sugar on top, and I am in heaven.

Over the next couple of days I spent time beating the jet lag (read 'sleeping in') and exploring on my own. I saw lots of cool modern architecture that Mike has already written about, and ate lunch overlooking the old boats in the old harbor. It was lovely. In the end, I only saw the eastern part of the city, and I look forward to seeing the western part next time. I also plan to revisit some of the buildings that are closed for January. (Go figure -- Rotterdam in January is not a major tourist destination!) One building that wasn't closed, and was one of my favorite finds in the city is the main public library. Housed in an interesting modern shell, this is six floors of multipurpose wonder. In addition to the expected books, it includes a theater, a discotech, a cafe, an online school, a strictly enforced quiet study area, and a chess center. The latter was like nothing I have ever seen. There are several computers on which you can watch famous masters' games, and then you can try your own hand at one of a number of small boards or the giant set in the first floor lobby. Not only was it interesting to watch two obvious chess masters go head-to-head, it was amusing to watch them try to wave off the two benches full of the peanut gallery that gave a steady stream of unsolicited advice.

Saturday was a day in Brugge, Belgium. When I travel, I tend to enjoy visiting churches. I have several motivations for doing so, one of which is that they tend to be the oldest and most well-preserved buildings in town. This is not so in Brugge. Here is a whole village that is preserved in time. While I did visit two of the many churches (including Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk -- who can pass up a visit to an original Michelangelo statue?), my favorite part of our time there was simply wandering the streets, feeling like a citizen of the 16th century (thankfully minus the muck).

At the center of town is the bellfry -- the tower-like building that currently sports the town clock and previously was used to house the town documents -- very valuable items in a time when it was important to prove that the town had its own charter. Unfortunately, the documents were all destroyed in a fire anyhow. The bellfry was also apparently (and ironically) used to alert the townspeople to fire with a large trumpet alarm. 366 twisty steps later, we also viewed the town from above. We didn't see any fires, though. We did see the amazing clock works that includes an automated 47-bell ringer that reminded me of a giant player piano.
I agree with Mike that if you are coming to Belgium, Brugge is a must. It certainly lives up to its UNESCO World Cultural Center status. If you do go, I highly recommend a small pub (whose name I unfortunately forget) located on Gevangenisstraat across from the park. Their specialty baked pasta (spaghetti and lasagnia) in a comfortable casual setting made me feel like a local.

My last full day here we spent in Antwerp. Like Brugge, this city also has preserved a lot of old architecture, but unlike Brugge this work is predominantly wealthy, with many buildings covered with gelt carvings and other details. The main figure in town is the artist Peter Paul Rubins (known for his "Rubinesque" women), who contributed several paintings to the main church (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal).

This cathedral dominates the city with the tallest tower in the "low lands". One look at it, and you can see why the townspeople decided that one tower would be good enough and scrapped the other four in the original plans. As is, the building took nearly 200 years to complete. Unfortunately, several cultural upheavals have stripped almost all the original art from the cathedral. Fortunately, in recent years the cathedral has begun to re-acquire some of the original works (supplemented with pieces from the same period), and are undertaking an extensive restoration project. As a result, we saw many beautiful paintings and carvings within the amazing gothic architecture. I doubt that the stained glass was original, but the windows were also very nice. Knowing Dutch would have helped immensely with the interpretations.

We also saw the oldest buildings in town, which is a medieval castle that dated back to the early 13th century. Since the interior has been converted to a maritime museum, we weren't too disappointed to find it closed on Sundays.
Tomorrow I hit the airport for the long trip home. But, before I go, I want to comment on the one constant in all three of the cities I've visited. This is the constant fear of collision with a wheeled vehicle. There are bicycles everywhere, and by law they have the right of way. Cars are more careful (since it's always their fault if they hit you), but I am totally baffled by the road/not road distinction (or lack thereof). I had planned to finish my blog entry with a photo-quiz where you, the reader, would have to guess whether the pictured throughway is a road for cars or not. But, I scrapped the idea when I realized I would have a hard time finding places that looked like they might be roads but were not. Cars simply drive everywhere -- even places that look all the world like sidewalks to unsuspecting Americans. So, when you are ambling, look out!

Traffic notwithstanding, my trip has been wonderful. Many thanks to Mike for putting up with me and my Pannenkoeken cravings, and agreeing to share my trip with you.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Delft, The Netherlands

This weekend, I headed north to Delft.
The Dutch countryside north of Rotterdam. Flat, empty, and crisscrossed by canals.
The bicycle parking outside the railway station was incredible. There must have been thousands!
Delft is a medium-sized town approximately 12km north of Rotterdam with an extensive history dating back almost 1,000 years. While it has suffered from two massive fires and one explosion of the town armory, much of the old city is in good condition and dates as far back as the 1400's. Delft feels like a small Amsterdam, with its many canals, pedestrian shopping areas, and outdoor cafes. I decided to explore Delft today because it is easy to get to and it is very cold, so I wanted to be able to get back to my hotel quickly if need be.
Look Ma, people are skating on the canals!

To get to Delft, I took the National Railway, which cost 6 euros for a round trip ticket and took about fifteen minutes. The Delft railway station is central and I was easily able to walk to all of the places I visited. The best part of Delft was the old buildings and beautiful canals. It is a very scenic town that is best enjoyed by taking the time to walk around and explore.
Royal Delft Dutchware
My first stop of the day was to Royal Dutch Delftware, the last remaining Delftware factory in what used to be a thriving industry. The company was established in 1653 and quickly established a distinctive blue and white technique that became the hallmark of this town. The porcelain is based on designs and techniques that the Dutch explorer brought back with them from China during this period of exploration.

The tour consisted of a walk through the manufacturing areas, including where the pottery is formed and baked, fired, glazed, and ultimately finished. Delft employs seven full time painters who handpaint all of the designs. It takes ten years of training and work before a painter is considered a master painter and assigned to the most important pieces.

One of the most distinctive products that Royal Delft makes is a tulip holder. In the 1700's tulips were incredibly expensive and a very popular way for rich families to show their wealth. These tulip vases are still available and are now the very expensive part. I considered buying a small vase in the gift shop but I found that even the smallest items were 75 euros or more. Too rich for my blood, though it was beautiful.
Oude Kerk (Old Church)
Built in 1246, this church is along the main canal and has a collection of beutiful stained glass windows. The floors are lined with crypts from notable citizens, including the artist Johannes Vermeer. The church is crowned with a high brick spire accented with four towers. It is the second tallest structure in the town.

The tower is plainly leaning at an angle. The best theory as to why is that the tower was built over a partially filled in canal. The fill appears to be somewhat unstable.
The stained glass windows have been replaced a number of times due to fire. In 1654, the town armory exploded, which destroyed all of the windows in this church and the New Church in addition to killing hundreds of citizens. Currently there are 27 significant stained glass windows, depicting various biblical scenes.
Nieuwe Kerk (New Church)
The New Church was started in 1396 and finished one hundred years later. It is in a cruciform shape. It is topped with a high tower and is constructed with a combination of brick and stone. The tower has been hit by lightning twice, triggering the fire of 1536 that destroyed much of Delft. Each time, the church was repaired and put back into service. Congregations still worship in the church to this day.
The royal family has long had a close relationship with this church, starting when William of Orange was put in a mausoleum here. William was the first in the line of the House of Orange, the royal family dating back to the 1500s. Since that time, much of the royalty has been buried in a crypt underneath the church.

Johannes Vermeer Museum
The world famous painter (Girl with the Pearl Earing) was born in Delft in 1632 and lived his entire life there. Vermeer had a total of 15 children and painted 37 paintings that are known. The museum has prints of his paintings, no originals, which was disappointing but not surprising.

It was interesting to see the prints of all of the Vermeer paintings lined up. It was possible to see how his style evolved over time and he learned to incorporate successful elements in each future painting. Vermeer is renouned for his grasp of light and how to depict it in his paintings.