Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Pol and I hope you've had a very MERRY CHRISTMAS!

And we'd like to raise a glass of champagne to wish you all a HAPPY NEW YEAR 2012!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christmas Markets: Plaisirs d'Hiver in Bruxelles

Bruxelles' Christmas Market is called Plaisirs d'Hiver or Winter Wonders (although the direct translation from the French would be Winter Pleasures...), and it takes place from the end of November until New Year's Day.

The first thing you'll probably come across (as it's the easiest place to find in Bruxelles!) is the giant Christmas Tree in the Grande Place.

That wooden structure next to it is a stable where a Crèche with large figures representing the Virgin, St Joseph, the infant Christ etc. are placed. Dunno why I don't have any pictures of it from any of my Bruxelles winter visits!

Like most decorations, things look a lot better a night with the lights twinkling away!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas Markets: Village et Patinoire de Noël in Liège

If there's one thing I miss about not being in Belgium at this time of the year, it's the Christmas festive ambiance you see/hear/feel everywhere (and all that crazy snow last year really helped)! And if there's one thing I love the most, it's the Christmas Markets!!! True, they're not as fabulous as the ones in Germany (or Eastern France), but it's the first place I encountered them, my "first love" as you might say. And so I start this blog series on Christmas Markets in the city where it all started for me, la "Cité Ardente": Liège.

Bienvenus au Village de Noël de Liège!

Located on the Place du Marché and the Place Saint Lambert, the Village de Noël - as Liège's Christmas market is called - turns 25 this year! (click on its name for the official website, in French)

It all looks much prettier at night with the lights, don't you think?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

La Saint Nicolas des étudiants in Liège


December 6th is Saint Nicolas, which is a very big deal for children in Belgium and the Netherlands and northern France (they get lots of presents and candy at the houses of various family members where St Nick has left them surprises!).

In Liège, an extension of this holiday is "La Saint Nicolas des étudiants", i.e. the University students' Saint Nicolas celebrations... and trust me, if anyone knows how to party hard, it's the University of Liège students! Particularly the Med students, the Vets and the Engineers... those three branches have their own brand of crazy fun! ;o)

So, in a few words, what happens in the "Saint Nicolas des étudiants"?  Starting a week or so before students don on their pimped out "tabliers" a.k.a. lab coats (the dirtier the coat, the longer they've been doing this! they're never washed!) from their "baptêmes" (now that's a crazy topic for another day, think hazing with lots of beer involved, on a voluntary basis).

Sunday, November 6, 2011

El Parque del Buen Retiro, an emerald gem in downtown Madrid

The capital of Spain has a green heart: El Parque del Buen Retiro.

Airplane shot of El Retiro on Panoramio

El Retiro (as it's commonly known) has been around pretty much since Madrid was made capital of Spain by Philip II in the 16th century. He had the park of the Jeronimos monastery (set up by his great-grandmother Queen Isabel) enlarged and formal avenues with trees laid out. Since then it was developped and maintained for the Spanish Royal family, at first as a retreat from the palace and later as a part of court life for plays etc. The park was opened to the general public after the revolution in 1868 (when Queen Isabel II had to flee the country) and since then has remained public property managed by city hall.

The fact that I went walking in the park twice in the same weekend should give you an idea as to how important it is to the people of Madrid. The friend I spent Friday afternoon with goes every day and walks around for about an hour with her daughter and the dog.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Weekend Walking around Madrid

Or perhaps I should call this "A Saturday Walking around Madrid", since I'm pretty much going to ignore the 2h walking around on Friday, leave the Sunday for another post and just share the tale of 6-7h walking around on a lovely autumnal Saturday... It was definitely a fabulously crazy and exhausting weekend in Madrid... wonderful! An opportunity to get together with several people from my "Belgian" group of friends (of which only 2 are actually Belgians, lol!) to hang out and enjoy lots of talking, walking, eating and dancing. What more could one ask for?

We started out from my friend's house near the Atocha train station (designed by French architect Eiffel, better known for a little tower he built in Paris and a statue in New York)

Estación de Atocha

We stopped briefly to gaze up at the Reina Sofia museum (20th century art) and made plans to come back in the evening (free admission on Saturdays after 16h!).

Museo Reina Sofía

Wandering up the Paseo del Prado we happened upon this very unique garden:

That can't be easy to maintain!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

La Nocturne des Coteaux à Liège

a.k.a. my favourite night of the year in Liège! :o)

This is one of the times I miss being in Liège,  what I consider to be the most awesome night of the year in that city! When the oldest part of the city and the hillside gardens and forest that lead up to the old Medieval walls are all glowing with candles and lanterns and music fills the air! In honour of that I'm adapting and reposting a post I wrote two years ago on my other blog.

Since 1993 the first Saturday in October is the "La Nocturne des Côteaux de la Citadelle" in Liège. I think I've been 4-5 times (I lose count), I chickened out one rainy year and then another when it was too "damp" (threatening to rain) and I had a nasty cold

I enjoyed the main website's description so I think I'll just paste it here (pix are all mine):
At the heart of the oldest quarters of the city...
Liège by night....
On the slopes...

For one enchanting evening Liège reveals itself as you have never seen it before. During the Nocturne, back streets, courtyards, steps, terraces, pathways, fields and orchards are accessible for all to see. Subtle lighting, music, entertainment and an atmosphere of celebration await at every turn.
With their 60 monuments, 5 listed sites, and 28 ha of well preserved green spaces, the Coteaux de la Citadelle, the slopes of the citadel, are a unique reminder of the ancient landscape of Liège.
On a mild October evening, a unique opportunity to wander and discover these little known walks softly lit up by over 15,000 candles and other lights. Musical and theatrical events take place throughout the evening, and many places open their doors to the rest of the world.
Every year an increasing number of heritage lovers, curious visitors, and people looking for that very special atmosphere, discover the Nocturne’s magic. Whether a loyal nocturne visitor or newly attracted to the concept, this is a chance for everyone to enter a place of magic and surprises, a backstage to the city of Liège.
To say it's quite enchanting would be an understatement! Candles, lanterns, braziers... professional musicians, amateurs... everything from classical music to folk to rock to heavy to electric. Marionette shows, street theatre and a fabulous fireworks show to wrap it all up at 23h30!

So, what say you? Ready for an eerie walk through gardens and alleys and cobblestone streets lit only by a multitude of candles?

Ok then! Follow me! (remember you can make the photos bigger by clicking on them)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Majestic Milford Sound: fresh above but salty below!

Few sights are as stunning on this planet as fjords, those oceanic tongues that seem to have carved their way inland through steep mountains who rise high above sea level. In reality fjords are flooded canyons that were originally carved by advancing glaciers millions of years ago, but the geological reality of it isn't usually the first thing that pops into your mind when you're standing at sea level gazing up those cliffs in search of the sky.

When people hear the word fjord, the first place that usually pops into their mind is Norway. That used to be the case for me too. But now when I hear fjord, I'm transported back to New Zealand and its many natural wonders... starting with the fjords in Fiordland National Park (a World Heritage Site) along the south-west coast of the South Island. Images of Piopiotahi (a.k.a. Milford Sound) pop into my mind: mountains reaching towards the clouds with their feet dangling in sparkling waters, a penguin hopping along a rock, fur seals basking on the rocks and playing in the water, waterfalls that seem to be falling from the sky, and a completely alien world under the water's surface.

Milford Sound, home of the Piopiotahi Marine Reserve, is one of New Zealand's top tourist destinations, in spite of the distance to just about anywhere else, and the difficulty involved in getting there (although there are more isolated places in Fjordland).  From the nearest town (Te Anau) it's a couple of hours along a narrow two-lane road with some windy climbs (and descents) through some very impressive mountains.

I was lucky enough to be able to make two trips into the Sound when in the region last January, which allowed me to view it under two very different skies,

admiring Mitre Peak, one of the tallest mountains to rise directly out of the sea
Jan 9, 2011. 4 PM. Breeze rustling the rushes, pushing the water up onto a pebbly beach. It's a beautiful place to just sit and take in the majestic beauty of Milford Sound. Even better, slipping my shoes off and stepping lightly into the water, hesitant of that first initial cold contact, only to discover that it's delightfully warm! And the spongy plants just beneath the surface are such a delight to walk on! Standing on a soft green cushion, waves rippling around my feet, wind in my hair... life is good.

It's amazing what a difference a bit of sun makes!

These isolated regions are perfect for a wide variety of animals: protected from the rough Tasman Sea waiting outside the sound, isolated from most predators, lush vegetation and freshwater in abundance, rich ocean waters with plenty of food... Of the many critters I met in Piopiotahi, I'm only going mention two here. Both spend part of their life on land, and part in the sea. Both are members of the "charismatic megafauna" which means the moment you see their photos you'll have the same reaction I did when I saw them: "ohhh!!! CUTE!!!" (I know a Uni professor who would kill me for using the C-word there, lol!) ;o)

Ready to meet them?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Semana Santa: Procesión de la Santa Cruz in Alicante 2010+2011
The Procesión of the Hermandad de la Santa Cruz (Brotherhood of the Holy Cross) on Holy Wednesday is definitely the most interesting and unique procession in Alicante. It generates a lot of devotion and admiration from its members and the rest of the population who show up hours in advance to find a strategic spot to watch it.

Part of what makes this procession so special is that it takes place in Alicante's oldest neighbourhood, at the foot of the castle. El Barrio de la Santa Cruz is your typical medieval mess: steep and narrow streets with lots of steps! At the top is its heart and soul, la Ermita de la Santa Cruz (small hermitage of the Holy Cross), from whence the procession begins.

Ermita de la Santa Cruz

Yes, I said steep, narrow, steps. So start imagining carrying one of the Pasos for a Holy Week procession through there... now imagine 3 of them. Now imagine carrying them UP and then DOWN. Why so many ups and downs? Simple, the hermitage is too small for these figures to set up there as a permanent residence, so on the morning of the procession they have to be carried up. Then in full regalia they get carried solemnly down, weaving through the old streets until they reach the Rambla and join up with the Pasos that started out from other churches in the city, all headed to the Cathedral. And after they reach the Cathedral? Well they have to go back up again! Which they do RUNNING!!! And since they can't stay up there... they'll need to be taken back down again to their permanent homes. Ouf! I'm just tired thinking of it! Walking around that neighbourhood is tiring enough without that weight...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Semana Santa: Domingo de Ramos in Alicante 2011

So, in yesterday's post I mentioned that we came across a surprise on our way home to Alicante from the Palm Sunday procession in Elche... As we were crossing town along the harbour, I noticed a lot of people on Alicante's main paseo, the Explanada. There was marching band music in the air... and the Palm Sunday procession still going on!!! Apparently we made it into town just as the procession was reaching its end. So I pretty much told my dad to go park the car in the harbour, my mom and I hopped out at a red light, and I hobbled over like crazy (bum knee? who cares!) to get some pictures and video of it all! :D

Monday, April 18, 2011

Semana Santa: Domingo de Ramos in Elche 2011

Cristo Triumphante (1940, Casa Bocacho, Barcelona)
The Palm Sunday processions are always joyous affairs, since they commemorate the triumphant entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem for Passover. He rode in on a donkey (symbol of peace, as opposed to riding in on a horse, more war-like), and the crowds cheered him while place palms and branches and cloaks on the ground before him. 

A couple of days before stalls are set up around town selling the typical white palms which Elche is famous for (they're exported to churches all over the world, and they even send one to the Pope every year!) during the the days preceding Palm Sunday. The first official record of the sale of these palms dates from 1429 (the earliest historical reference to a Palm Sunday celebration in Elche dates back to 1371).

Then on Palm Sunday people start gathering at the site where the procession begins quite a bit in advance, wearing their finest and carrying palms in their hands. These can be simple branches, or decorated with bows and olive branches up to elaborate designs woven with the palm leaves. Some people have bought theirs, other very talented people (not me!) have made theirs!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Semana Santa Española

Holy Week is a big deal in all Catholic countries, but in Spain it's a VERY big deal!

For those not familiar with Catholicism, Holy Week is the last week of Lent (i.e. 40 days before Easter). It starts on Palm Sunday (today), and ends the Saturday before Easter Sunday. Palm Sunday commemorates the joyful entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey to celebrate Jewish Passover, while the populace rejoiced and laid down cloaks and branches on the ground in front of him. Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper with his twelve apostles, and Good Friday is for mourning Christ's death.

The processions organised for Holy Week in Spain have been around since the Middle Ages. Think of it as a Passion Play with statues, being represented in the streets of the towns and cities over the course of the week. In my mind it was a highly visual way of teaching an illiterate population about the Passion of Christ, and allowing the faithful a chance to participate more fully in their relgion and express their belief (and in some cases penitents asking for forgivness, or others giving thanks for blessings received). In today's increasingly secular society the number of participants decreases each year, but a significantly large portion of the population still come and either watch the processions or walk in them at the back. In some cities (like Sevilla) they have also become a major touristic draw.

Palm Sunday 2011, Alicante
Palm Sunday 20011, Elche

Saturday, April 16, 2011

I climbed Snowdon!

There are these special Snowdon t-shirts for sale, you know, the typical tourist stuff? Anyone who's ever been up Snowdon will know which ones I mean... they say "I climbed Snowdon!". Wish I had taken a photo of them, can't even find one online! Anyhow, you'll understand a bit more why they're something of a big deal once we reach the end of this tale.

Let's start at the beginning, after all, as July Andrews once sang it's "a very good place to start" (why do green mountains and meadows always make me think of The Sound of Music?): Yr Wyddfa a.k.a. Snowdon. The tallest peak in Wales at 1085 m above sea level, with one of the wettest climates in the U.K., and is apparently "one of the busiest mountains in Britain" (says Wikipedia) a series of facts I was vaguely aware of when I climbed it, but wasn't really conscious of what they entailed.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Tramping around and about Cadair Idris. With sheep!

guest post by Juliette Harrisson of Pop Classics, a continuation of yesterday's "Discovering Wales: much more than sheep!"

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I have yet to make it up Mount Snowdon (maybe this year!) but I have done a lot of walking on Cadair Idris, the mountain we live on, which is absolutely gorgeous (and doesn’t have a mountain railway for cheaters!). There are two main routes up to the peak of Cadair Idris – the Pony Path and the Minffordd Path (the Fox’s Path has become more dangerous recently).

The first time I walked a substantial way up the mountain, we took the Minffordd Path, and the trip was somewhat spontaneous. We read all the very serious and important advice to hikers posted in the car park – and then proceeded up the mountain in summer skirts and light shoes, with one bottle of water and no food between us. It was very silly and very naughty, but in our defence, it was a lovely day in the height of summer, there were people everywhere, we all had mobile phones and we didn’t go all the way to the peak that day. Instead, we hiked up to one of the lakes in the cwms of the mountain. Even that was quite hard work for us urbanites, but somehow, whenever two of us were ready to give up, the third would gain a sudden burst of energy and pull us all along until we reached our destination – the biggest and most impressive lake.

The walk starts with a long flight of stone steps, following the river up through the wooded lower slopes.

Every now and then, a gap in the trees allows you to see the valley:

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Discovering Wales: much more than sheep!

guest post by Juliette Harrisson from Pop Classics

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Nearly five years ago, my parents moved to Snowdonia, in North Wales. When it comes to permanent living arrangements, I tend to be more of a city girl, who needs to be less than an hour and a half away from the nearest multiplex cinema, but the area they’ve moved to is absolutely beautiful and it’s wonderful to get away from the smoke and traffic and wander in the hills for a while! I lived at home for nine months of last year so I got plenty of opportunity to explore the area.

It’s an old joke in England that there’s nothing but sheep and mines in Wales, but it’s not *quite* true! In North Wales, we have impressive medieval castles:

Harlech Castle, Snowdonia

picturesque seaside towns:

pubs with waterfalls inside them:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What's Up Doc?

Busy, busy, busy Cris.
She wants to write... but can't seem to find the time.
And when the time does come... then inspiration stays away!

I have so many half-prepped posts, it's depressing! Some (mostly kiwi stuff) are just missing the photos, others a video... but I don't have time to go through hundreds of pics and select and edit the ones I need! And as for video editing... aïe aïe aïe!!! Talk about time consuming! Then there are the others (Athens), which are basically iphoto albums waiting for me to find the right words to weave them together... but my Muse has been avoiding me lately and I can't seem to write. Plus there's research that needs to be done for links, and data and... damn!

Slow but sure, as the tortoise proved to the hare. I'm slowly getting around to them (got a kiwi one out yesterday -backdated to the original writing date-), while trying to keep up with recent activity.

So, what's coming up around here? Well for starters something I'm really excited about: my first guest blogger!!! She's going to share her adventures of wandering around the gorgeous slopes of Cadair Idris in Wales in all kinds of weather, admiring the sheep and the trees and the sheep and the hills and did I mention the sheep? ;o)  I had such fun reading what she sent me (and drooling over some of the pics) that it sent me down memory lane and I'm pulling photos out of my treasure chest from my trip to northern Wales in 2005. Let's contrast hiking up Cadair Idris with hiking up Snowdon! (and then if I can find some more time I might lose myelf in some Welsh castles... loved those!) 

After that it's back to catching up with the backlog of posts about Athens and New Zealand, all backdated to when they should have been published. Once those are done... who knows? Perhaps dipping into Belgium a bit. Perhaps something else. In the meantime I'll also try and keep up with any exploring I might do in the present. Anyone fancy a week at Saint Cyprien in southern France in May? Or talking about Easter traditions here in Spain (what with Holy Week starting in a few days)?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cycling around the Marjal de Pego-Oliva in northern Alicante

(this post is in part adapted -and expanded- from one I published today on my other blog)

Ahhhh... what a lovely day yesterday! The sun was shining, the air was warm (HOT! bloody heatwave thanks to some crazy African wind: 35ºC!), the orange trees in bloom (AMAZING smells!!! like someone had just opened a bottle of orange blossom perfume!)... great day to go on a cycling tour of the Marjal de Pego-Oliva!

The Marjal is all that remains of an ancient lagoon that got isolated from the sea by sand dunes and then silted in thousands of years ago. It's now an ~ 1290 Ha expanse of agricultural lands (rice, oranges, figs etc.) and un-cultivated land criss-crossed by a series of canals and ditches that have been developed and maintained since the Arabs started cultivating rice here centuries ago and were also used to dry out some of the lands for orchards in the 18th century. The Marjal receives its water (necessary to be a marsh!) from the subterranean aquifer and rivers that flow in from the surrounding mountains. All of these of course depend on the rainfall in a given year (this is the part of the province that receives the highest annual rainfall). The permanent water level is usually quite near the surface, and in several places the water actually breaches the surface in the ullals or springs (some freshwater, some saltwater!). 

aerial photo from Parcs Naturals de la Communitat Valenciana website

Thursday, February 17, 2011

On the road again!

My oh my... only 3 weeks after getting home from New Zealand... and I'm out again!!! :p

I guess I can't keep still! ;o)

Not my fault this time! Well, not completely my fault... I mean, who could resist the chance to go the Athens for a weekend for a big crazy Greek wedding? Not me, that's for sure! :D

Friday, January 14, 2011

Kiwi Bites! vol.3

  • Ouch! I’d forgotten about the “Roaring Forties” :s Crossing Foveaux Straights from Bluff into Stewart Island made me feel very queasy! You’d think crossing that region (and back) two years in a row to the Antarctic would have taught me that lesson… Thankfully the one trick I did remember –getting fresh air and eating an apple- did help. Felt better real fast, and the sea spray in my face was fabulous! As were those sooty shearwaters (called muttonbirds here) flying just above the waves.
    Muttonbirds flying over the waves of the Foveaux Straights
    • This trip is confirming my previous assessment from 3 year ago, that (most) Kiwis are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met! Whether it be the girl at the Te Anau DOC centre talking about Fiordland penguins and other birds and the advantages/disadvantages of their various Nature guidebooks, or the skipper on the dive boat who used to work on fishing boats out of Bluff telling me fishing tales and good tidbits about Stewart Island. Ditto the 3 bus drivers today who conveyed me from Te Anau to the Stewart Island ferry at Bluff. They helped clear some of the confusion about not being on "the" bus I had booked (but one run by a different company) and being passed along to another bus twice (when we thought we had a direct “drive”). The 2nd driver was particularly fun. I sat behind the drivers on all three rides and he was chatting with me most of the way, talking about his job, things along the route, the beauty of Stewart Island where he’d live if the missus would consent! ;o)
    • On the other hand I think I’m going to stop listening to the advice of the STRAY bus drivers on places to stay… ‘cause this backpackers I’m in now at S.I. is pretty bad! No internet (even though they say yes on the website, but 2 old computers who don’t work well don’t count! I'm in the bar of the gorgeous little South Sea Hotel using their Wi-Fi and drinking cider), problems with the gas oven and stove… and outdoor access to the bathrooms in a place where it’s very chilly!!! :s
    • LOTS more sheep in the fields crossing Southland… rolling hills with good pastures it seems. Ditto with deer. Still seems weird to see those behind a fence like cattle!
    • Stewart Island is FABULOUS! Great place to relax… and wait ‘till I tell you about the birding paradise that is little Ulva Island, and going kiwi spotting at the beach at night! :o)
    gazing across the harbour of Oban, Stewart Island's main township
    Stewart Island Shags nesting on a rock in the harbour

    Kiwi English:
    • A dish towel is called a “tea towel” (but Brits use that as well, I never did get it…)
    • You leave your car in the car park, and you don’t rent a car, you hire one!

    Friday, January 7, 2011

    Flying South for the Summer

    Well, I’m here now. And it's a lot cooler than up North!  :s

    Down in the South Island and on my own. Sniff! I loved my two weeks with my sister, we had a fabulous time (as proven by my state of fatigue and lack of time for blogging!), but her holiday is over so I’m letting her get back to her thesis (yes, there are two of us in the family crazy enough to have started a PhD) and I’m going to take in the southernmost part of the South Island,

    Thursday, January 6, 2011

    Kiwi Bites! vol.2

    Argh!!! Blogging problems… travelling with a “local” (i.e. my sister and friends) means staying in all the good spots, off the beaten track… but with no internet access! Add to that exhaustion at the end of the day and socialising (i.e. hang out with people and not glue yourself to a computer and completely ignore everyone else) means I’ve been behind in my blogging about this trip pretty much since Day 1! Sorry ‘bout that. But I’ve been making little notations in a notebook I carry on me, and whenever possible copy them out onto a Word doc and choose the photos in iPhoto so that when I do have internet time I can spew out (hopefully) interesting blog posts about this adventure! And I’m “back-dating” them to the date I would have written them if I could, so don’t be surprised to see posts appearing dated before this one. Namely posts on the Tongariro Crossing, Mt Taranaki, the Forgotten World, Veil Falls, beer tasting, surfers in Raglan or Cathedral Cove in Coromandel.

    As of tomorrow I’ll be travelling on my own which means nobody to hang out with (sniff!!!) so more time for the blog. I’ll try whenever I connect to post something recent and something “late”.

    Kiwi English:
    • Tea towel -> dish towel
    • Slips are rock falls or land slides on the road

    • A Dairy is a small convenience or grocery store

    Random shot from the road:

    sheep in a quarry!