Tag Archives: rick steves

We Are Not Afraid

23 Mar

I was watching a matinee performance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when it happened. The brilliant Imelda Staunton as Martha was lambasting her husband for not knowing the origin of the phrase “What a dump!”, while less than a mile away pedestrians were being plowed down on Westminster Bridge and a police officer was stabbed to death. I didn’t find out about it until I turned my phone on during the interval. My dad had texted me to see if I was OK.

“There’s been an attack near Westminster,” someone behind me said.

“Oh dear,” said an older woman. Somehow those two words seemed to convey so much — “I hope everyone is alright. Though I guess it was only a matter of time before we had another terror attack. …I wonder if Martha is really going to cheat on George in the next act?”

Nobody panicked. Some people made calls to loved ones to ensure they were alright, but most people just sat and ate their tiny cups of Häagen-Dazs, waiting for the play to resume.

I admit my first feeling upon hearing of the attack was not that of fear, but of practicality — how was I going to walk home after the show? Would all the roads be closed? I didn’t have any proof of address on me to show the police if my street was barricaded. Would Tesco still be open? I needed to buy some grapes.

When the curtain rose we were once again immersed in the twisted lives of Martha and George and the outside world temporarily didn’t matter. Every once in a while someone’s phone would go off, likely a worried friend or relative trying to check in (who would only grow more worried when the person didn’t respond for two hours). But for the most part, the proverbial show went on.

Afterward I hesitatingly emerged from the theatre, mentally exhausted from essentially watching a couple fight for 3 hours, unsure of what the post-attack atmosphere would be like. The first thing I saw was a couple taking a selfie. As I made my way towards Trafalgar Square, I encountered more tourists cheerily taking photos as if nothing tragic had just happened 3 hours earlier. Past Trafalgar Square all the roads were blocked off by cones, police officers and tape, but pedestrians were allowed through. I popped into Tesco, got my grapes, and went home.

“It’s so quiet out there,” Stephen said when he got home from work. While there was the constant buzz of helicopters overhead, there were no cars, taxis or buses zooming by.

The next morning the streets in Westminster were still closed. I debated whether I wanted to go run — not because I was afraid, but because all the road closures seemed like a hassle — would I be able to get to the park easily? I looked out my window and noticed the police who were previously stopping pedestrians were now letting them through. So I went out. It was eerie seeing major streets without any cars, but aside from the increased police presence, it felt like any other day. The annoying European school groups were out in full force — some of them even mocked me as I ran in place to warm up. I smiled. London was going to be OK.

Rick Steves posted a video from 1990 on his Facebook page that still rings true today.

Europe will always have terrorists. But the chance of being killed in a terrorist attack is still statistically tiny. You shouldn’t cancel your European vacation every time there’s an attack, just like you shouldn’t cancel your flight every time there’s a crash. Of course we should mourn and honour those who were injured and killed in the acts, but we also need to keep living our lives. While #prayforLondon has been trending worldwide, the hashtag that’s been trending in London is #WeAreNotAfraid.

we are not afraid

I’m glad I went out for a run today. It was a beautiful day. But as I was going through Green Park, admiring the fields of daffodils, a piece of a tree branch broke off in the wind and struck me in the neck. If the wind had been stronger and the branch piece sharper, I might have been killed or at least seriously injured. And just like that it all came together: pretty much anything out there can kill you — even Mother Nature herself. But that’s no reason to never leave the house. You have to be smart and alert, but not afraid. There’s so much out there worth living for.

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Manneken-Pis wore a costume! And we also went to Ghent

28 Aug

The other day I was talking to our porter about our trip to Belgium.

“Is it a good place for couples to visit?” he asked.

I told him it was if you like wandering around, exploring historic sites and eating delicious food (which we do), but I’m not sure what he meant. What makes a place good for couples? Plenty of nightclubs? Places to canoodle? Whatever the opposite of family-friendly is? I was puzzled.

So the jury is still out on whether Belgium is good for couples, but it’s definitely good for foodies, beeries and arties (I’m pretty sure I just made those last two words up).

We made Brussels our home base and then took day trips to Ghent and Bruges. We had planned to hit Antwerp too, but Stephen came down with a nasty cold so we decided to take it easy the last day. Plus, there’s probably a limit on how many medieval fairy-tale like towns one can take over the course of 4 days.

Though Brussels makes a good base, it’s two best sights — Manneken-Pis and the Grand Place — can be seen in the span of 10 minutes (20 if you walk slowly and take a lot of photos). Rick Steves says there are two types of people — those who adore Manneken-Pis and those who abhor him. I’ll let you guess which of us is the former. Here’s a hint: I read online that Manneken-Pis wears a costume a couple times a month, and was dying to see one. The first day we were in Brussels I looked up the schedule and saw he’d be dressed the next day, so I made Stephen walk out of our way before our train to Ghent just to see the little squirt dressed like “one of the Buumdroegers.”

manneken pis costume

I still have no idea what a Buumdroeger is (one who “carries the tree during the Meyboom plantation?”), but I had to see Manneken-Pis dressed like one.

manneken pis outfitSuccess! (Though in hindsight, I should have waited for the tall dude to move and gotten a clear shot. I was too excited.)

Then it was on to Ghent. Ghent is the only Belgian city on our itinerary that I didn’t previously visit with my parents two years ago, so I was excited for something new. I had read that it was one of the most beautiful and authentic cities in the world, so expectations were a little high.

ghent belgium

I would say it’s definitely beautiful and authentic in an Amsterdam-meets-Bruges way with slightly less tourists and more free toilets — which is the best, because my two complaints about Bruges are that there are too many tourists and a lack of free toilets. It seems no matter where I travel, I always end up on a quest for a quality toilet, whether that means a free one or a non-squatter.

Besides the free loos, the most well-known sight in Ghent is probably the Ghent altarpiece (the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) at St. Bavo Cathedral. When I was in high school I did a project on Jan van Eyck and the Ghent Altarpiece. It’s funny, when you’re 14 years old in Kentucky writing about a 15th-century work of art in Belgium, it all seems so far away and other-worldly — high school Renee never imagined she’d ever find herself on a day trip in Ghent, face to face with the world’s most stolen artwork. And yet there I was. Photos were not allowed, so here’s a picture from Google:

ghent altarpiece
Of course a photo doesn’t do it justice. I’m told I have to watch the movie The Monuments Men now since the Ghent altarpiece is in it.

After lunch (mmm… Flemish beef beer stew and fries) we went to see the other side of Ghent’s art scene: Werregarenstraat, or Graffiti Street. According to Rick Steves (I told you, he’s my homeboy), they made graffiti illegal in Ghent except for on this one street so street artists would have an outlet. When I heard “graffiti street” I imagined crude images (remember the Lisbon wiener?) or gang tags, but what we saw was some serious art (and one crude Muppets image). It’s a shame these can be painted over at any time.

ghent graffiti street

ghent graffiti censored

ghent graffiti good

ghent graffiti monkey

ghent muppets

Our last stop in Ghent was Gravensteen castle.

ghent castle

It was built in 1180 and renovated in the 19th century. We did a lot of climbing and walking around looking at the art exhibit and torture devices inside. We also got some nice views.

ghent castle view

ghent view

At one point we were walking along a walkway with no guard or railing and at least a 10-foot drop. I should have taken a photo. My first thought was “Stay to the side and don’t fall.” My second thought was “This would never fly in lawsuit-crazy America.”

In short, Ghent definitely has a lot to offer for couples who enjoy charming architecture, castles, artwork (both old and new), and of course, free loos.

Facts about Lisbon and Portugal

20 Aug

Quick, tell me what you know about Portugal! Here’s my list pre-Lisbon visit:

1. They speak Portuguese there.
2. It’s on the coast of the Iberian Peninsula next to Spain.
3. Christopher Columbus and a bunch of other explorers were from Portugal. Although I just Googled him and apparently Columbus was Italian. I’m a bad American.
4. Cristiano Ronaldo the famous footballer [soccer player] is from Portugal.
5. Nando’s! (Cheeky Nando’s!) Although I just Googled Nando’s and apparently it was founded in South Africa and peri-peri sauce is from Mozambique. Why is it Portugal themed then?!
6. Lisbon is the capital.

That’s basically the knowledge I had of Portugal before we went there. And now I’m happy to report I can add a few facts to my list.

7. Lisbon is super hilly.

As far as I know, Lisbon has great public transportation, but we didn’t use it, because I needed to get Fitbit steps (and also I suppose exploring a city on foot helps you truly see it). We walked from Avenida da Liberdade to Miradouro Sao Pedro de Alcantara to get a nice view of the city. Google Maps said it was a short walk.

lisbon weinerWhat Google Maps did not say was that it was up a very steep hill. (Although I guess I should have inferred a viewpoint would have to be high up…) Most people waited and took the trolley up and down, but most people don’t have Fitbits that track flights of stairs climbed (and hills count as stairs). So we walked up and down.

lisbon trolleyI don’t know if you can spot it in the first photo I posted, but São Jorge Castle is up on a hill in the center of Lisbon. We walked there next (after stopping for ice cream, of course).

lisbon castle

This post is going to be very photo-heavy, so click to read on.

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What do watermelons and guidebooks have in common?

30 Jul

Friends, I think something might be wrong with me. Today I walked to Oxford Street to go shopping (24,000 Fitbit steps and counting today!), as is tradition before I go on holiday. There’s just something about wearing new clothes in a new place. I was gone for five hours (5!) and I came home with a pair of off-brand Chucks (shoes), some socks, and a watermelon. (And a finger that is still somewhat numb from lugging said watermelon over a mile in a cheap Tesco bag). I went into so many stores. I tried on so many things. And yet nothing seemed worth buying. It either didn’t fit right or I realized I have at least three shirts that are too similar. That, and I think I’m getting too old for many stores. Why must all the shirts be crop tops? Why does everything scream “drunken hot mess at an outdoor music festival”? Why do the jeans have so many holes in them? When I was in high school one of my classmates told me my style of dress was “career mom.” I took it as a complement, though I’m sure she meant it as a diss. I like to think I dress better now than I did back then, but I can’t shake the career mom vibe entirely, despite the fact that I work from home in pajamas most days and have no intention of becoming anything other than a dog mama. In short, I have a closet — closets — full of clothing I barely get to wear that will happily journey with me to Portugal and Belgium next week, along with my new blue cheapo Chucks.

Rick steves ebooksThat’s right, next week we begin our August holiday, which in typical Renee and Stephen fashion is to two countries that are not geographically close and have absolutely nothing to do with each other other than the fact that they’re both places we want to visit. For some reason we procrastinated and struggled to decide on a destination this year (#firstworldproblems, I know). There are so many places to go and see, but it also turns out a lot of the world is hell’s-waiting-room hot and muggy in August, so we had to narrow our choices. I’ve been reading and writing about Lisbon a bit for one of my jobs and we’ve never been to Portugal, and Stephen’s never been to Belgium. I went with my parents to Brussels and Bruges two years ago, but I told him I would happily return to the land of chocolate, waffles, frites and lambic (aka fruit beer that actually tastes like fruit and not beer. Take note, Bud Light Lime!). I’m still working on a tentative itinerary with the help of my homeboy, Rick Steves. Is there anything that screams “American in Europe” more than toting around a Rick Steves book? Maybe wearing an NFL jersey with white socks and trainers, but I tote my Rick Steves with pride. Frommers and Lonely Planet just don’t compare. This time I’ll just be toting my Rick a little more discretely on my iPad, but not because I’m not proud to be an American, but because guide books are freaking heavy (and my finger may never heal from lugging that watermelon).

Holland Holiday, or What part of my body hurts the most?

29 Aug
There’s this obscure song by my favorite composer Jim Steinman called “What Part of My Body Hurts the Most?” That’s what I woke up wondering last week in Holland.

Was it my legs from biking 35 miles in one day?
Was it my butt from biking 35 miles on a rental bike with a broken seat?
Was it my arm or hand from trying to hold an iPad mini to navigate while biking?

If you couldn’t tell, we went on a short holiday to Holland last week. We stayed in Amsterdam but decided to take a day trip to Haarlem because the only two cities in The Netherlands Rick Steves writes about in his “Best of Europe” book are Amsterdam and Haarlem. We intended to take a train there until anonymous strangers on the Internet planted the idea of biking in my head. “Holland is flat as a pancake!” they wrote. “People commute to work in Haarlem by bicycle everyday! It’s an easy 20 km ride.” (That’s 12 miles, Americans). It’s true that the Dutch bike everywhere and there are very clear bike paths and signs. So we rented some three-speeds from MacBike and set off for Haarlem, armed only with a GPS that couldn’t seem to locate our location and an iPad Mini with the Forever Maps app.

The last time I rode a bike was in college when I rode 10 minutes to my classes on north campus. But sure enough, riding a bike is just like, well, riding a bike, and I easily peddled around the bike rental plaza. But then we had to go on the actual road and I quickly realized I had no idea what the cycling rules of the road were. I knew I had to stay on the bike path, but what about intersections without stoplights? The cars seemed to be giving me the right-of-way, but then a tram came, along with hordes of pedestrians. Eventually I hopped off and walked my bike until we got to the major road. Stephen tried to hold the GPS and navigate while I stopped every 5 minutes to check the iPad map, but eventually we decided to just follow the clearly marked signs towards Haarlem. Google Maps and the random people on the Internet assured me the journey would take a little over an hour.

It took us two hours. At one point a couple that reminded me of my maternal grandparents passed us on their bikes.

“So what is there to see in Haarlem?” Stephen asked as I caught up to him, but couldn’t catch Grandpa. My mind went blank. I knew Rick Steves raved about it, but as we were halfway there I couldn’t remember why I wanted to go to Haarlem so badly.

“There’s a windmill there… and a church.”

“We are biking all this way to see a windmill and a church?” he replied. I told him the journey was half the fun, even though half the time we were biking next to the motorway and so the only scenery was the cars rushing past the various industrial parks.

Eventually we made it to the city center and parked our bikes near the Grote Markt.

grote markt
The markt area was beautiful. Haarlem reminded me of Bruges, what Harry from “In Bruges” would call a “fairytale $*&%ing town.” We had lunch on the square, toured the Grote Kerk (“Great Church”), then took photos by the windmill.

“How far is the beach, again?” Stephen asked.

When researching the route to Haarlem I noticed the beach town of Zandvoort was only 5 miles from Haarlem. Stephen had wanted to go to the French Riviera instead of Holland for our holiday, so I thought biking to the beach might be a nice compromise.

“The map says it should take less than 30 minutes,” I said.

We cycled through Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, which while beautiful, was certainly not “pancake flat.”
Zuid-Kennemerland bike
So many times we thought about pulling over, calling the mound of sand on the side of the bike path “the beach,” and heading back. But we needed to see the sea — we had come too far. After an hour we finally emerged from the national park into a seaside town. We walked our bikes up the stairs, and there it was — the North Sea. The beach.
Zandvoort beach
As far as I know, The Netherlands isn’t known for its beaches, but I was pleasantly surprised. It looked like any other beach town. We parked our bikes then got some ice cream while we looked at the sand sculptures.
zandvoort sand sculpture
Then we had to bike the 17 miles back to Amsterdam before it got dark. I was better at navigating on the way back, but it still took us over two hours. My butt has never been more sore. That was over a week ago and it finally no longer hurts to sit down. Needless to say we spent the rest of the week on foot, no more cycling.

And now the photos that didn’t fit into the narrative:

Grote Kerk St.-Bavokerk
Grote Kerk
Ceiling of the church:
grote kerk ceiling
Zoomed in:
grote kerk ceiling zoom
Haarlem backstreet:
haarlem street
The famous windmill:
haarlem windmill
My typical shallow depth of field shot:
haarlem flowers
One of the many Haarlem canals:
haarlem canal
Shutters aren’t just for decoration?!
haarlem shutters
Haarlem Beetle
haarlem beetle
Now with some quick, crappy editing!
haarlem beetle bw
At first I thought this was just a different spelling of my name, but apparently Rennes is a city in northwest France.
rennes snackhouse
Finally, proof that I biked to the Zandvoort beach!
holland bike