Poh-ta-gee Revenge!!

So in a way very much like Montezuma’s Revenge wreaks havoc on the poor, innocent traveler to Mexico, Maylene and I have fallen wickedly prey to da Poh-ta-gee Revenge in Portugal.  We have both been stricken by food poisoning (we think).  I had it for five days and Maylene is now on day 3.  I think the worst is over for me but hers just keeps progressing.  It’s kind of crazy.  Tons of pain and lots of mad dash races to the bathroom!

where we spent most of our time...

where we spent most of our time...

Couple that with the fact that we had no internet access in our rooms – that we had to use the lobby – and we’ve fallen dreadfully behind in our posts.  We hope to catch-up over the next few weeks, so please bear with us.  And while you’re at it, send nice healing thoughts to Maylene – I know they’ll help her feel better.

***Update*** – we are definitely both better and yes, Maylene’s symptoms lasted for five whole days as well.  Yuck!

And Now We’re in… Belgium…

After Ireland and a one-night layover in Amsterdam, we headed over to Belgium to play tourist in Brussels and Bruges.  First up– Brussels.

Advance research told us that there was not much to see and do in Brussels, but we went anyway because we couldn’t secure “affordable accommodation” in Bruges right away.  No problem, we booked a cheap apartment-type place in Brussels just a short walk away from one of the major train stations.  We trekked around the city a bit, admiring the architecture everywhere, including the Grand Palace

Heading towards the Grand Palace

Heading towards the Grand Palace

One side of the Grand Palace

One side of the Grand Palace

Another side of the Grand Palace

Another side of the Grand Palace

…and of course, the most senseless tourist site anywhere– the Manneken Pis

Manneken Pis - why is this a tourist spot again?

Manneken Pis – why is this a tourist spot again?

Ta DAH!  A little guy peeing!

Ta DAH! A little guy peeing!

…that’s right.  It’s a tiny statue of a little guy peeing into a fountain.  People travel from all over the world to take a picture in front of that thing.  We did it.  So did the huge group of Japanese tourists milling about in front of the little guy.  Apparently, they sometimes dress him up on special occasions, but he was nekkid when we were there.  Good times.

Ever since we started watching Rick Steves‘ show in Washington, we’d wondered if Belgian (“Flemish”) fries were really all they were cracked up to be.  After all, what we call “French” fries were supposedly invented in Belgium.  They are also different from the taters we know and love as they are fried not once but twice.

Our conclusion:  while good in theory, we found that the resting period after the initial cooking made the fries kinda stale.  Like refried fries.  The resting period is usually a mystery; you’re never really sure how long they were sitting there before you ordered them.  Ironically, we’d had some Flemish fries in Amsterdam and found that they were much better– probably because they were not allowed to rest for very long as the fry joints in Amsterdam were always really busy.

Brussels also happens to be the political center of the European Union, and being the political geeks we are, we were really excited to visit the EU Headquarters.  We’d heard that you could tour the facilities as well and maybe even catch a session in progress.  Yeah… well, we probably should have confirmed a few things beforehand.  We got there only to find it almost completely abandoned.  Apparently, we showed up on a holiday of some sort.  We saw more diplomatic representation in front of the Manneken Pis.  Heh.

After only two days, we were more than ready to leave Brussels.  It’s certainly a nice city– good transit, nice people, and all that.  But boring as heck.  Seriously.  So we headed to Bruges with higher hopes.

If you’ve ever seen the movie In Bruges, you already have a pretty good feel for the city.  And if you haven’t seen the movie, you should– not your average action/comedy/drama/hitman movie, for sure.  Here’s the trailer…

We saw the the film a while ago, so we had that in our heads when we arrived.  Unfortunately for us, the weather was crummy for most of our time there; kinda like the movie, actually, but with rain.

Random architecture in Bruges... and a crummy day

Random architecture in Bruges… and a crummy day

Bikes in a random Bruges square

Bikes in a random Bruges square

The Belfry Tower in Market Square

The Belfry Tower in Market Square

Also adding to this aggravation was the fact that everything in the town center closed by 6PM– shops, grocery stores, restaurants– everything.  It was crazy.  You had to walk across town (OK, it’s not that big, but still) to get to restaurants, bars, and “night shops” that still had a pulse at 6:30PM.  It’s a good thing the hostel we stayed at had 1) a bar with a Belgian beer tasting every night and 2) a city tour based on the movie In Bruges.

The latter was definitely an interesting experience mainly due to Kai, our intrepid guide, originally from NYC.  After the tour, he was kind enough to invite all of us over to his apartment for dinner.  We all threw in some change for the groceries and proceeded to drink and talk stories with a very diverse group of people– Australians, Canadians, Americans, a Spaniard, and a Brasilian to boot.

The Belgian beer tasting:  if we take nothing else away from Belgium, we have learned this– they really do have the best beer in the world (Charity adds, “So far– I haven’t been everywhere yet” ;-)).  Supposedly, Belgium is the birthplace of beer, invented by monks.  There are still beers made by monks from centuries-old recipes called “Trappiste” beers, and according to Kai, they are the best because of all the love the monks put in.  Normally, that sort of statement would make me laugh, but then I tried some and… well, let’s put it this way:  I am not– by any stretch of the imagination– a beer drinker.  But those beers with their 8-11% alcohol-by-volume content would and did make me one for a few days.  I still think about that beer and can’t wait to find them again.  Trader Joes maybe?

Oh, and one more thing– what they say about Belgian chocolate is true, too.  Made fresh daily, Belgians buy their chocolate daily like other cultures buy their bread.  Unbelievably good stuff.

Cool canal complete with swans

Cool canal complete with swans

Sunbreak!

Sunbreak in Market Square!

A Breakfast By Any Other Name

(fill in the blank) Breakfast

(fill in the blank) Breakfast

While in the UK and Ireland, we’ve stayed in numerous of bed and breakfasts (B&Bs) and guesthouses.  As the second B implies, the room also comes with breakfast in the morning.  More often than not, breakfast isn’t merely yogurt and cereal but a hot, cooked breakfast usually consisting of sausage, bacon, beans, an egg, tomato, and toast.  Sometimes you also get black pudding; sometimes you get hashbrowns or mushrooms.  Sometimes the tomato is missing.

Before arriving in the islands, we’d heard these referred to as “English” breakfasts.  Imagine our surprise when we got to Wales and saw “Welsh breakfast” on the menu.  “Neat!” we thought.  We were interested in trying something different.  The difference?  Absolutely nothing but name.  Sausage, bacon, egg, tomato, mushroom, beans, and black pudding.  As we continued traveling, the same held true for “Scottish” and “Irish” breakfasts.  Well, the latter sometimes included Irish pancakes, but that was the only difference.

That said, we found that the biggest B&B faux pas one could commit is to call that breakfast by any other name.  We saw this in action in Scotland when an unfortunate Englishman asked for a full “English” breakfast in the dining room.  The host paused, laughed, and asked “Scottish breakfast?” while fellow diners looked over and snickered derisively.  The poor guy stammered and giggled and managed a “oh, yes, Scottish breakfast, of course”.

You wouldn’t think the regional name of a breakfast would be a big deal (and perhaps it isn’t), but it seems more of a reflection of regional pride and a need to distinguish one’s area from the former mother country of England.  We have observed and often commented between ourselves about the general attitudes of both British subjects and the Irish.  It’s a broad generalization, but here it is anyway:  the Welsh, Scots, and Irish have a deeply-rooted suspicion and dislike for the English, and the English hold a general disdain for anyone not English.  The latter seems subtle in everyday life, but the former is a matter of pride and usually worn on one’s sleeve.  We heard anti-English comments regularly outside of England.

Before visiting Europe, I never knew that Continental breakfast referred to the kind of breakfast you usually find on the “continent”– pastries, muffins, bread, and tea/coffee.  As we leave the islands tomorrow, I will indeed miss the breakfasts, especially the egg part.  😉  More than that, though, I am going to miss these countries.  They are jam-packed with history and culture, and I have had a great time.  Hope to get back again soon.

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions

English breakfasts – here we come!!

We are on our way to the UK for about a month – flying into London tonight and directly onto Bath on Tuesday.  We’re taking Rick Steve’s general itinerary for UK touring in 22 days and cutting it down in a few places.

We will be checking out Stonehenge and Avebury after a few days of relaxing in Bath Spa (really, that’s the name). After that we hit the road with Maylene volunteering to drive us through Wales and Scotland. We are really getting excited about the prospect of driving again and are hoping for a GPS this time. Yes – this is another thing we short-sightedly decided to leave at home, thinking it was too bulky for the trip. Yes – we’ve been kicking ourselves since we rented in Switzerland. It seems like they agencies never seem to have any more in stock when we arrive and/or, they didn’t equip the car with it and it took them two hours to get it to you in the first place — yipes! I’m hoping for a much easier pick-up in Bath.

If anyone has advice to provide about the UK, including Ireland (our next stop) – we’d love to hear it!

A Baby Jesus Here and a Baby Jesus There…Here a Baby, There a Baby, Everywhere a Baby Jesus….

Today we headed in the late afternoon to brave the heat and the crowds of Florence (Firenze) and intended only to do the Rick Steve’s walking tour of the city and to arrange for reservations later this week to two of the major art museums in town.  We figured there’d be a slim chance of getting into the Uffizi as reservations are required about a month in advance.

The first gallery/museum, the Accademia, happened to also be the first stop on the walking tour as well so we started there.  Approaching the museum, we saw that the line of folks waiting was only about 12 people deep so we decided to take the plunge and go ahead in to see Michelangelo’s David.  It was more amazing than we thought it would be – especially as an art history novice.  It was definitely larger than we expected and we could tell that it was one of the more remarkable marble statues that we had seen and by now, we’ve seen a lot.

David...but only a replica as the real one is in a museum

David...but only a replica as the real one is in a museum

The museum did a good job of setting up the statue and actually juxtaposed the work of Michelangelo against the work of Robert Maplethorpe.  We really liked the unfinished works where the statues were practically bursting out of the marble.  Good stuff!  Wish we could take pictures but they weren’t allowed.  Staff ran around saying “No Photo” and we didn’t want to try to sneak anything.  That’s why we were happy to see a replica of David outside the Palazzo Vecchio where we could freely take pics.  Anyway, back at the Accademia – then we ran around the museum and saw all of the pre-Renaissance art depicting scenes of the Baby Jesus and Mary…along with the dying Jesus and a few old instruments enjoyed by the Medici family.

We continued on our walking tour picking up some fantastic gelato along the way – Maylene had mint chocolate and I had caramel — yummm…  We have definitely discovered the pleasure of a piccolo (small) cone of ice cream in the heat of the summer and this was one of the best.

Anyway – so I had heard a rumor that the Uffizi would be open late on Tuesdays and figured that at least we could get our reservations there for a time later in this week.  As it turns out, the museum was open and there was no line, so we went for it.  The most famous painting there was Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and it was beautiful.  Again, no pics allowed in the museum but we managed to take some great shots of the sun setting across the Arno River.  We figured they didn’t charge admission for the sunset:

what a view!

what a view!

Due to closing times of the museum, we kind of had to buzz through – most admiring of the non-religious art we came across.  I mean, really – there’s only so much Baby Jesus here and Crucified Jesus there that one can appreciate.  Maylene kept joking, look – “there’s Baby Jesus on his first pony ride, there he is with his first ice cream cone…” riffing Ellen Degeneres’s stand-up bit called The Beginning.  Too funny!

It was pretty cool to see some of the works that we had only seen before in books and to also admire the beautiful frescoes and gilded ceilings of the former Medici family offices.  What a life!

Rijksmuseum et al…

Today we visited a few museums.  The Rijksmuseum was really great.  Unfortunately, however, it was under renovation – in some ways good because it wasn’t overwhelming with information but rather, just enough.  It related the history of the Dutch people through the artwork of its more famous artists.

We enjoyed our jump-on, jump-off tram pass and used it more judiciously than we previously had been.  We’re getting to know the city and love many aspects of it.

gorgeous archway at Rijksmuseum...great afternoon light.

gorgeous archway at Rijksmuseum...great afternoon light.

We also enjoyed the Sex Museum.  Yes, it was well done and fairly tasteful.  Yes – it will show you everything you could ever imagine related to sex.  Pornography from the 1800s, mannequins, personal photos from the 1950s — a million photo ops – but we were too chicken to pose for them for fear they might be used against us later.  😉  Good times though.  Come on, use your imagination!

We were hassled  by a bum for the first time.  Maylene held her ground and didn’t let him get on her nerves, it was funny.  Tomorrow – off to depression with the Anne Frank museum…  yes – quite a turn from the sex museum…

oh yeah — and the Heinekin over here really does taste better than in the states – and it’s the same price as a coke or a latte usually — fun!  Ah yes – and the kuidje cones (soft serve) – are to die for… delish!  Nothing fancy, just plain goodness!

Oh yeah, and if I hear a Michael Jackson song again anytime soon, I think I’ll lose it!