Sunday, 17 August 2014

Antwerp affinity

Brussels is grand, but in a contest I'd pick Antwerp in a heartbeat.

Antwerp feels full of life and interest and so very gezellig.

It's a design and fashion mecca (think Martin Margiela, Dries van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester ...)

There's art and culture, old and new 

The Rubenshuis above and below, where Rubens lived and painted for most of his life

Even the Hare Krishnas were there on a Saturday morning, bringing vivid reds to the Groenplaats.

Like every other Belgian city there's a crazily high density of (good) restaurants 
Belgians getting typically serious about their food over lunch at Bourla, in Graanmarkt

... and if it isn't a restaurateur it's a chocolatier: masters of the dark art Marcolini, Wittamer, Neuhaus lead the way in chocolate perfection and in vying with one another with sculpted creations.

Just ahead of the football world cup, the chocolatiers were indulging in soccer themes - my favourite a white chocolate rendition of Rio's Christ the redeemer ...

Works in progress at The Chocolate Line, Paleis op de Meir, Antwerp

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

In the ville de Bruxelles

Heart and capital of European government, Brussels has the feel of a serious city, full of weighty institutions, politicians and foreign diplomats. 

Round and about the Grand Place, the Beaux Arts and Galeries Royales

Children playing on the almost deserted square in front of the Brussels opera house, La Monnaie/De Munt, a few hours before it filled up with opera-goers for a startling production of Orphée et Eurydice (see here), based on a real-life case of a young Belgian woman with locked-in syndrome.

Peering up at the grand vaulted glass ceiling of the colonnaded 19th century Galeries Royales 

... a perfect place for a pre-opera drink.

And from the sublime to ... Europe's oddest tourist attraction? the jolly little Manneken Pis, unadorned by outfits on this day but still drawing the crowds. 

Brussels, June 2014

Sunday, 3 August 2014

On a sunny Sunday in Cascais

this was the view from the terrace of the Albatroz hotel over the Atlantic

On a warm, still day before the start of the busy summer season, the beach was almost empty except for some carefree children running, shrieking, from the icy waves.

This beach - just a few miles along the coast from my home and school - was one of many I played on at their age and older.

Amo-te - ? was all I could make out at a distance of this boy's writing in his sand-heart. Praias de Lisboa? a sentiment after my own heart.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

In Belém

A monastery built at the entrance of Lisbon, on the banks of the Tagus

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Belém

 became a house of prayer for sailors leaving and returning from the voyages of discovery to Africa, India, Indonesia, South America, China, Japan. 

Vasco da Gama is entombed here, and the poets Camões and Pessoa with equal reverence.

And when one is all done with veneration,  there's an espresso and one or two pastéis de nata to be had just down the road.

At the Fábrica de pastéis de Belém, the pasteis de nata are the best in the universe; the recipe, created by monks at the monastery (with leftover yolks from egg whites used to starch the nuns' habits), a tightly guarded secret since 1837.

Perfectly light and melt-in-the-mouth fluffy, this is as close as you'll get to their creation - looking through the window to the kitchens, where on an average Sunday morning 20 000 of these little heavenly tarts are baked

to satisfy the queues of Lisbonites that snake out the door and down the street 

My favourite coffee place in the world.
Lisbon, April 2014

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Rooftops and fado

In the words of a popular fado, it's the bairro mais alto do sonho, the highest quarter of dreams. From the narrow cobbled streets of the Bairro Alto you can look up to slices of blue sky 

and over the rooftops of Lisbon to the river on one side

view from a terrace in the Bairro Alto

and the castle on the opposite hill.

view from Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcantara

You can drive up here, though good luck manoeuvring a car through the narrow alleys once you get here.

(I learned to drive as a 19 year old in this city and credit the experience with giving me nerves of steel behind the wheel; I can drive literally anywhere with sangfroid). 

Or you can do it the old-fashioned and more fun way via a wood-panelled and brass interior-ed funicular. 

Elevador da Gloria

Look up at the windows here and there's always life going on

Drying hair over the balcony

Student playing guitar for friends. I snapped this with my phone from where I sat at a restaurant table across the street!

Lunch at this place at the top of a steep alleyway in the Bairro is a mandatory ritual ...

Give me queijo fresco, azeitonas and pão caseiro with a glass of vinho verde and I'm all okay with life

Later at night in the Bairro Alto there was arroz de marisco (seafood rice) and ... fado, the music invented here in the oldest, poorest quarters of the city.  

Dark, grainy iPhone snaps. For the best Portuguese food blog I know and superb photography see here: Pratos e Travessas

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Baixa de Lisboa

The Baixa is downtown Lisbon. It literally means 'low', which you understand properly when you're down there looking up - in this view, to the castle that  has watched over the city, guarding and protecting it, since the 11th century.

Castelo São Jorge viewed from the Baixa near Rossio

If the thought of walking up these hills is exhausting, there's a crazy elevator at hand to crank  you up to higher levels

Elevador Santa Justa

Walkway of Santa Justa elevator over Rua do Carmo

When I was here last month I'd recently read David Leavitt's The Two Hotel Francforts (here), set in 1940s Lisbon, in which the Santa Justa elevator features memorably, as well as Rossio square, with its fountain and wavy cobblestones, pictured on the cover ...

So although I've walked through this square a thousand times, I was imagining it now in the early months of the war, filled with wealthy refugees waiting for safe passage on ships out of Europe from Lisbon's harbour.

and although the sun came out brightly for a bit while I had a coffee here at Café Nicola, it was fun to play with retro effects on my pictures afterwards. Lisbon is the sort of city that can make you see in sepia and faded colours.

Rossio station's fabulous façade

Dom Pedro was looking lonely up on his column, and I let the seagulls lead me down towards the river, to Praça do Comércio

where once upon a time a giant royal palace had stood, complete with lavish cathedral and opera house, built on the river bank by Portuguese kings flush with gold from Brazil ...
 all destroyed by a massive earthquake and tsunami in 1755 which took almost all of the Baixa, downtown Lisbon, with it. Sic transit, etc.

A pair of inscribed stone beacons remains to mark the spot where the the kings' ships laden with treasures would have moored - now a lonely but photogenic, in the mist, spot.

For a moment I thought the suspension bridge that crosses the Tagus a little way down from here had unbelievably disappeared, but it gradually revealed itself in the mist.

It was chilly, and time to head back up one of those vertiginous hills in search of food ...
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