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Hang Gliding

I was fully prepared to be scared out of my wits, but it was surprisingly easy to run down the steep hill and straight into the air.  After that, it was a half-hour of non-stop giddiness.  Being along for the ride was great, especially when the pilot started doing stalls, dives, and wing drops, but the moment when I was truly hooked was when I took the controls for a few minutes.  Texas needs to sprout some fresh mountains, quick, or else I'm going to have to move somewhere else.

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

It took me 24 hours of trains and busses to make my way here from Switzerland.  Then an hour of wandering twisted medieval streets in the wrong direction because the guidebook map was inaccurate.  Being here was entirely worth the whole ordeal, though.  CK is listed second to Venice on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites, and with good reason.  To continue the Hayao Miyazaki comparison's, Krumlov is like the mountain towns seen in the beginning of Castle In The Sky, only here the castle isn't in the sky, it's atop a hill right in the middle of town.  It's a beautiful agglomeration of ancient buildings surrounding a massive chateau complex of 40-plus buildings, all tightly embraced in a winding S-curve of the Vltava (Moldau) River.

Let no one tell you that the Czech Republic is not cheap anymore....it may be more expensive than it once was, but when I can have 2.5 liters of beer, an appetizer, an entree, and an absinthe for a grand one-night total of $19, it is plenty cheap here.

The hostel I had in Krumlov is - if such a thing is possible - even more awesome than the one in Antwerp was.   This one - called Krunlov House - was lovingly renovated with handbuilt furniture and staircases by a bunch of Australian backpackers, and it's quite possibly the most perfect place to stay in this town.  Yes, there are stunningly beautiful posh hotels here, but if you want to live, eat and socialize like a local this is the place to be.  The party people stay at Hostel 99, but the travellers with a capital T will be far happier at Krumlov House.

A few highlights: 

River-rafting on the Vltava.  

Walking through the stunning multi-period castle by day.  

The local Eggenberg beer, from a brewery that "modernized" in the 19th century by installing steam machinery.  

Horor Bar, a warren of arched cellars that may be the most perfect goth bar ever - the bartenders were both cute girls in a casual, everyday sort of goth dress, however the music was not "goth" but a variety of alternative music ranging from Iggy Pop to The Fall, and the patrons were just there for the atmosphere, not to be "blacker and lacier than thou".  

Rambling conversation with a couple of local Czech guys at the self-same Horor bar.  

Sneaking into the castle with one of them after dark.  

The small but beautiful collection of Egon Schiele paintings at the Centrum Egon Schiele, especially his townscapes of Cesky Krumlov.  

The Keith Haring exhibition at the Centrum which featured most pominently his illustration work for texts by William S. Burroughs, as opposed to the usual Haring stuff you always see everywhere,  (Unfortunately, no photos were allowed or I would have photographed some of the best ones for Karin). 

And now a stuffy three-hour bus ride has brought me to Prague...

I loved CK so much it's hard to imagine I'll like it here nearly as much.  The hostel is very new and very modern in its design, but it doesn't have any real character.  It's all style, and no "Hey, a big group from the hostel are going to see the live band at Gypsy Bar tonight".   I'm sure Prague will be of massive interest anyway, but if not for this place requiring an unusual 48 hours notice for cancellations I might well have stayed in CK until the last night of my trip.

More to come.

Love and Bohemian Bonhomie,

Jonathan

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 Why Brussels Sucked:

It was unseasonably hot.  It was nearly impossible to navigate, and I have breezed through every other city on this trip with ease (even the supposedly notoriously difficult Amsterdam).  The directions to the hostel were so terrible I spent an hour wandering up and down hills before finding the street I needed at a 90-degree angle to where they said it would be.  After that much time wasted, I had precious little to find the Musee des Beaux-Arts...and when at last I did, it was the Palais des B-A.  Arrrgggh.   So, more walking, and finally arriving at the museum, which by then was closed.  So I never saw The Fall Of Icarus or any of the other masterpieces, and Brussels was pretty much a complete wash.

It was punctuated by a failed attempt to meet up with some people from the hostel that night, and ending up alone in a cafe, getting service that even by European cafe standards was terrible.

Also, the Bruxellois apparently have no sense of humor.  Despite valiantly trying to put a comic spin on my predicaments, I never saw one of them so much as crack a half-smile.  Most regarded me as if I were from another planet.

And finally, Brussels is ugly.  I can say this because everyone who lives there freely admits it.  It's not even the edgy, exciting sort of ugly you get from parts of New York, though.  It's not a lively arts and industry and street performers and subcultures, so-much-goes-on-here-we-have-no-time-to-make-it-pretty ugly, it's just plain ugly.

Next time I come to Belgium, I'm staying in Antwerp and just taking the train to Brussels for museum visits.

Amsterdam and MINI United:

MINI United was cool.  Not at all a "singles mixer for MINI owners" as Bruce had jokingly called it, though.  In fact, my number one complaint is that most people there came with an established MINI club from their hometown somewhere in Europe, and the way the festival was designed, people mostly just stayed in their established cliques.  There weren't any events that would really encourage you to meet anyone else.

So the whole thing ended up feeling like going to an amusement park by yourself, but what an amusement park!  Over the course of 3 days, I:

    - learned to do a cool James Bond style reverse 180-degree turn
    - took 6 speedy laps around the Zandvoort Formula 1 circuit in my loaner MINI from MINI USA
    - took 2 far speedier laps as a passenger to one of the MINI Challenge drivers, in his souped-up track racing MINI
    - took one of the new diesel MINIs for a high-speed rally-style group test drive around the public roads of the small beachfront community of Zandvoort.  I think we flouted about 15 different European laws, but we did so very safely.  :)
    - drove go-karts at speeds no American company would ever allow
    - saw two half-hour races in the MINI Challenge series...and discovered I have a much higher level of patience for motorsports when they don't last 4 hours (I'm talking to you, NASCAR)
    - saw several live bands, and some DJs from Hed Kandi (a pretty good house label, only slightly cheesy)

Meanwhile, the MINI USA crew gave us free drinks every night, an Amsterdam canal cruise the first night, and dinner at Jamie Oliver's Fifteen on the last night.

After MINI United, I spent most of my last day checking out the Van Gogh Museum, which was entirely worth the hype.  Those paintings have to be seen in person to be truly appreciated.

On the whole, I liked Amsterdam.  The ethnic food is amazing, and the quality you can get from cheap street food is unparalelled.  The city is very pedestrian-friendly, and the red-light district not nearly as dramatic as people made it out to be.  The people are some of the nicest, most hospitable people I've ever encountered in a city this size.

Night Train

Cue Oscar Peterson....  After Amsterdam, I took the CityNightLine to Switzerland.  Provided you're not a light sleeper, it's a great way to travel and save yourself a night in a hotel.

Now I am in Interlaken.   If Brugge was Kiki's Delivery Service, then Interlaken and the surrounding villages (especially the hike down the valley from Murren to Gimmelwald) are Nausicaa's home valley in Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind.   I spent the whole day yesterday riding trains and cable cars up mountains so I could walk down the other side of them.  It's so picturesque here you can't quite believe it.  I exhausted the camera battery by mid-afternoon, so the stunning views of the Eiger as I walked through Murren will have to remain unphotographed.

Now I'm off to pack up the gear before an afternoon of Alpine hang-gliding, then a night train to the Czech Republic.

Apologies for the mundanity of the posts so far...foreign keyboards and 30 minute time limits don't lend themselves to rumination, but there will be deeper, juicier stuff once I return.

Love to all of you,

Jonathan
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Oper Koln

I am pretty sure the original Handel version of Giulio Cesare was not so sexy.  This production featured harem dancers stripping to their undergarments, a male soprano in high heels, leather pants, and pompadour, and Cleopatra as a dominatrix in the third act.  Still, the audience predominated by sexagenarians gave them enthusiastic applause and 4 curtain calls.  Easily the finest young operatic cast I have ever seen.  The hall was uninspiring and the production values more weird than wonderful, but the singing was divine:

More on Brugge

Had a lovely night walking around the place with a couple of people from the hostel: Ellie from Australia and Anne-Marie, a Quebecois studying in Vienna:  Unfortunately, they weren't keen to actually go in anywhere, so we ended up back at the hostel by 10.   I was so wired up with digging on the town that I wanted to head back out; but no one was left in the hostel, so I wandered alone, and ended up having one lonely beer at 't Brugse Beertje before calling it a night.  The place was full of obnoxiously loud English metalheads...not my cup of tea.

I did, however, earlier have an excellent dinner.  I wouldn't have expected it fro, a place called the Hoobit, but the kitsch was non-existent, the all-you-can eat grilled meats were excellent, and the Hoegaarden was ice cold.  Yum!

As a side note, the cute waitress with the geeky glasses and desultory haircut was not my waitress, but she served to prove an interesting point: thong hanging out of your low-cut jeans...tacky.  Sparkling white huge briefs doing same...inexplicably sexy.

Brussels

A nightmare.  More on that later.  Luckily, I am now in the coolest, most convivial-without-being-frattish-and-boorish hostel ever in Antwerp, and down the street is a cafe serving 200 kinds of jenever.  Life is good again.  Let's just pretend Brussels never happened.

Love and euro-kisses

J
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I have found some real corkers already.  Thank you, Tintin store.  If you want one, e-mail me your address at my gmail account, unless you are Joy - yours I have from your condo postcard.   If you don't have my e=mail, post a comment here and we'll sort it out.
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...that's Brugge in a nutshell.  This place is so like that town it's eerie.  I want to stay for months.  [profile] phylomath should visit post-haste.  More later because this keyboard is tiresome, but all I can say is WOW.  I should have planned for more than one night here.
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So I'm going to Europe in two weeks.  I deliberately haven't much of a plan...it's all very napkin-sketch.  My very limited itinerary includes:

1) Drink a fresh Kolsch in Koln/Cologne
2) See Brueghel's "The Fall Of Icarus" at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Brussels
3) Attend the international MINI festival/party MINI United in Amsterdam
4) Visit Meteren, a tiny town in Geldermalsen, Netherlands that is the origin of my surname
5) Send home postcards and Belgian chocolates (more on that later)
6) Time permitting, hang- or para-glide in the Alps
7) Spend some time futzing around in Prague
8) TIme permitting, visit honorary family member Fenar in Copenhagen
9) As much as possible, take only pinhole and zone plate photographs. *

* I don't want to take the same Europe photos thousands of others have taken, and this seems like a good restriction to encourage creativity.  I'll have only one other lens with me, for portraits of friends made along the way and other things that don't lend themselves to long exposures.

So, in honor of my impending journey, I'll be expanding the Tuesday poem into a series of posts over the next two weeks.  This first one is perhaps the greatest travel poem ever written, most of all because it is not necessarily about travel.

Ithaka


As you set out for Ithaka
hope the journey is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - don't be afraid of them:
you'll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon - you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
may there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbours seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind -
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Constantine Cavafy
Tr. Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard

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