Belgium: Brussels, Bruges, Beer

Belgium: Brussels, Bruges, Beer

The train slowly creaked into motion, taking me away from Amsterdam Centraal. My hand was still a little bloody from cutting it on the bicycle; and my stomach was full of kebab (I haven’t properly visited a city unless I sample the local kebab), which is never an exactly pleasant sensation. Soon we were speeding through the Dutch countryside. What was most striking about the scenery is how amazingly flat it is (being largely recovered marshland); the only thing that broke the skyline were distant church spires.

I was on my way to Belgium. Now, this modest member of the Low Countries has a special significance for me. Growing up, I had a close friend from Belgium. His parents worked for the United Nations and so they ended up living in Sleepy Hollow, New York. I didn’t know anyone else from Europe, so my impression of the continent was shaped by my experience with my Belgian friend and his family.

They were an impressive bunch—tall, blond, active. I remember once witnessing the parents have lunch; to my amazement, they were eating salads! (My friend took every opportunity to eat junk food when he visited my house.) I heard strange stories of tasty waffles and french fries (which, the Belgians reminded me, weren’t really French). Finally, in my last year of high school, my Belgian friend had to move with his family to Tokyo, and I was permanently left with a hazy impression of a far-off land where everyone lived in cozy little houses eating salads and waffles. Now I could finally see Belgium for myself.


Brussels

My train rolled into Brussels, and I got out to find my Airbnb and to explore the city as best I could in the remaining hours of daylight. Brussels cannot help but be at least a little disappointing to someone who has just finished visiting Amsterdam. While the Dutch city is full of personality, Brussels immediately struck me as bland and anonymous. I felt as if I could be anywhere: Germany, France, Italy, Spain… Was this the place I had been dreaming about all these years?

My impression of the city considerably improved when I found my Airbnb. It was near a street full of attractive restaurants (yes, including kebab), and it was a surprisingly beautiful apartment for the price I had paid. The host, who spoke excellent English, worked in the movie industry; so the flat was decorated with many posters and other movie paraphernalia. This was some real European culture.

I had arrived somewhat late in the afternoon, so I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the city. After checking in I hightailed it to the main attraction of the city: the Manneken Pis. I wonder how the Brusselites feel that the identifying sculptural icon of their city is little peeing boy. Perhaps they have a good sense of humor, as the statue seems to indicate. In any case, I confess that I did not feel the profound sense of awe and wonder that the statue can inspire. But maybe this was because someone had cheekily dressed the statue up for winter, so his impishly naked form was buried under heavy fabrics. (Apparently this is the usual state of affairs. In the post-war European recovery and boom, the relieved and happy Belgians took to dressing their iconic statue in an ever-increasing assortment of traditional costumes. The young urinating rascal apparently has a wardrobe several times bigger than even a dedicated shopaholic.)

Five minutes from the “little pisser” is the central square of the city, the magnificent Grand Place. This expansive plaza contradicted everything that I thought I had observed about the Brussels. For it is not plain, generic, or blandly modern. It is, in fact, one of the most beautiful central squares that I have ever seen, comparable to the Marienplatz in Munich and Prague’s Old Town Square. It gives the visitor that unmistakably pleasurable sensation of being, without a doubt, in Europe.

From upper left to bottom: Town Hall, King’s House, guild houses.

Dominating the Grand Place is the old gothic Town Hall, which looks strikingly similar to the New Town Hall in Munich or the Town Hall in Vienna. And this is no coincidence, since both of those neo-gothic edifices take their inspiration from this genuinely gothic construction. The hall has survived fires and bombardment to serve as an archetype for the secular gothic style. Facing the Town Hall is the King’s House. This building—an administrative building that now houses the city’s museum—gets its name from the King of Spain (specifically, Philip I of Castile, the first Habsburg king in the Iberian peninsula); and thus it serves as a strange reminder of the erstwhile dominance of this Lowlandish nation by the Mediterranean country.* Apart from these two imposing spired structures, the rest of the plaza is dominated by guild houses, which look like ornate apartment buildings. One of these is called Le Roy d’Espagne, and could very well refer to me.

*You might be interested to learn that the word “flamenco” means “Flemish” in Spanish, and in the past was used for anything deemed extravagant. Thus it came to be applied to the genre of music, which of course does not come from Flanders.

My next and last stop (the sun was already setting) was the Cathedral of Brussels—or, more formally, the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. It has only been a proper cathedral for sixty years or so, since Brussels falls within the diocese of Mechelen; and that city already had a cathedral. Oversized church or a properly-sized cathedral, it is an attractive building—made in the formidable French gothic, with its two towers standing like bulwarks over the city. The inside is correspondingly impressive, though little stands out for comment besides a resplendently decorated baroque altar. In sum, it is a worthy cathedral, and its front porch offers an attractive view of the city—especially during sunset. The worst that can be said of the building is that, like so much of Brussels, it blends in with other parts of Europe so seamlessly as to lack character.

The spire in the center is Brussels City Hall

My short time in Brussels was spent. The sun had set, and every attraction would be closed. I had decided to spent the next and final day of my trip visiting Bruges, so it seemed unlikely that I would be seeing anymore of the nation’s capital. This meant that I would not see the enormous Atomium, a steel sculpture of a unit of an iron crystal (and not, as some wrongly say, of an iron atom). I would also miss the Museum of Fine Art, which is so good that W. H. Auden dedicated a depressing poem to it. Indeed, I would not see any of Brussels many fine museums—which include those dedicated to trains, musical instruments, and comic strips. I had to choose between all this and Bruges, and I chose Bruges.

I ate dinner in a fish and chips shop (Bia Mara), bought some Belgian beers (Leffe) in supermarket to drink in the Airbnb, and then walked back to drink delicious beer by myself and to post photos (edited for extra saturation) on Instagram. Obviously I was having a great vacation.

But before I leave Brussels, I wanted to share some of what I learned about Belgium during my time there. I found, to my great surprise, that the country is still a monarchy; and the old royal palace (now unused by the royal family) stands in the city center—a palace which, if I can judge from the photos, is as bereft of character as the rest of the city. I also learned that Brussels is the unofficial capital of the European Union, with much of the organization’s offices located here; indeed, sometimes “Brussels” is used as a synecdoche for the EU. The presence of so many thousands of native and foreign bureaucrats in the city has not helped its reputation as a tourist destination. Perhaps this helps explain why the city gives such a strong impression of being anonymously European—it really is at the crossroads of Europe. NATO also has its headquarters here, only adding to the mix.

Yet it is not only Brussels that has something of an identity crisis. The whole country is split strongly and starkly along linguistic lines. In the south there is Wallonia, the French-speaking part of the country; and in the north, the Dutch-speaking Flanders. Brussels straddles these two regions uncomfortably, situated somewhat north of the Wallonian border and yet predominantly French-speaking, although it is nominally bilingual. From what I understand, those in the French part of the country rarely learn Dutch, and vice versa, leading to little intermingling and consequently little feeling of camaraderie between the two regions. The result is a strangely bipartite country, almost as if two smaller countries had been uncomfortably welded together.

This inner division expressed itself in the famous attempt to form a governing coalition that followed elections in 2010. After a record-shattering 589 days without a working government, the Flemish and Wallonian parties—who, you will remember, typically do not speak one another’s languages—finally managed to form a working alliance and elect somebody. Under these circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a strong independence movement among the Flemish. Much like Catalonia in Spain, Flanders is the most affluent area of the country; and there are some who think the region would do better if not attached to Wallonia. After all this time, it seems that many Europeans still have not learned to live with one another. Unfortunately, when Europeans do live together, the result can be a city like Brussels.


Bruges

The train ride to Bruges was, if anything, more flat and watery than the trip from Amsterdam down to Brussels. I had never known why the Netherlands and Brussels were referred to as the “low countries” until this trip. There is hardly a hint of elevation to speak of. To pass the time, I read a selection of the works of John Ruskin, the eccentric Victorian art critic who was obsessed with the Alps; and he even went so far as to suggest that the inhabitants of flat regions have little notion of true grandeur. Clearly he had never been to Bruges.

When the train pulled in to Bruges’s station—taking slightly over an hour, and passing Ghent along the way—I could hardly contain my excitement. Bruges is one place I had never expected to visit. Indeed, even the day before I was unsure whether I should visit Bruges or stay in Brussels. Rewatching a few scenes from Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges convinced me that I should opt for the first option; sassy Irish hitmen seemed a welcome improvement over European bureaucrats.

Bruges is among that small class of cities, such as Venice or Toledo, whose every corner is picturesque. It is an adorable place. The downside of such places, however, is that they quickly become overrun by tourists. Though I was there during the off-season, I did not get a strong sense of local life; there seemed to little more than tourist attractions, gift shops, and overpriced restaurants. Still the city is worth it. I don’t know when exactly humankind lost its ability to make such splendidly pretty places; nowadays we only build such quaint dwellings using CGI.

I was delighted with everything—the narrow cobblestone streets, the brick houses with step-gabled roofs, the canals crossing this way and that. I just wanted to walk into one of the little houses, build a fire, start a family, and spend a happy life eating waffles and drinking beer. But I contented myself with taking lots of mediocre pictures, which is at least less of a commitment.

Why is Bruges so beautiful? The answer, as in so many cases, is money. Bruges spent the late middle ages as a commercial superpower, strategically situated near the English channel between Germany, France, and Spain. Merchants took advantage of a channel which led from the city’s harbor out into the ocean. Yet the good fortune was not destined to last. As with Seville’s equally lucrative river port, Bruges’s channel silted up and commerce, not usually loyal, moved elsewhere. This led to a long, slow, grinding decline, which was only broken centuries later when tourists realized that, as a result of this process, the city’s beautiful building had survived intact. Two World Wars also left the city unscathed, giving the contemporary traveler a time-capsule of a city.

Bruges Cathedral

The skyline of Bruges is dominated by three towers. The first I encountered was the city’s cathedral, St. Salvator’s. For such a stately purpose, it is a fairly homely building—at least when compared to such gothic monsters as the cathedral in Brussels. Built of brick and lightly decorated, its inside is restrained and calming. The next tower is that of the Belfry. This enormous protuberance stands proudly over market square, the central plaza, sprouting out of a lower building like an oak from a grassy field. In Bruges featured the tower in a starring role, such as when Colin Farrell tells a group of pudgy Americans that they shouldn’t try to climb to the top, and that he’s “not being funny.” As an out of shape American myself, I took Farrell’s advice and admired the Belfry from the ground.

The Belfry. Image by Graham Richter; licensed under CC BY 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

The last and tallest tower belongs to the Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk), a mostly gothic church which nevertheless, like the rest of the town, is mostly built of brick. But the church is more famous for what it contains that for its tower. First there are the gilded tombs of Charles the Bold and his daughter, Mary, the Duchess of Burgundy. Charles the Bold was cut down in battle and initially buried nearby; but his great-grandson, Emperor Charles V, had him and his daughter moved to Bruges. Strangely, however, modern researchers have been unable to find Charles’s body—though Mary’s corpse did make it to its intended location. In any case, the tombs are impressively lifelike and appropriately resplendent for noble bodies; and it was gratifying to find the forebears of the family which would one day come to dominate Spain: the Habsburgs.

Yet most people do not pause at the tombs for very long, since in the next room, in the center of an altar, is a work by Michelangelo. Few works by the dour master can be seen outside of Italy, and fewer still in such a small city as Bruges. The subject is simple: The Madonna and Child, with Jesus resting tranquility on the Virgin’s knee, who is looking just as pretty and angelic as she does in the Pietà in St. Peters. If you are familiar with Michelangelo’s work, it is not difficult to spot the master’s touch here. Every element is just so finely executed—the poses, the fabric, the composition—that the statue immediately calls out to the viewer.

Image by Elke Wetzig; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

It seems strange that this should be so. I have seen hundreds of statues of this same subject, many by masters of their craft. How could Michelangelo take something that so many able men had been trying to do for so long, and do it better? This is the mystery of genius, I suppose. But could he have created such superlative art had not so many artists paved the way before him?

I should mention that this statue has been stolen and replaced twice: first during the Napoleonic invasions, and second during World War II. Luckily, violence and greed have so far left the statue intact, and have restored it to its rightful place.

It is difficult to write adequately about Bruges, I find, since you cannot give an accurate impression of the city by going through its parts, one by one, as a writer must do. So much of the experience of visiting consists in being lost in picturesque streets, surrounded by ever-changing views on all sides. Focusing on individual sights would detract from the impression of the whole. Nevertheless, there are some areas of the city that are worth singling out. One of these is Markt, or Market Square, the center of the city. This is where the famous Belfry can be seen. On one side of the square, the neo-gothic Provinciaal Hof (Provincial Court) rises in brooding majesty; while on the other, a row of pretty, brightly colored apartment buildings lightens the city’s aspect. In the center of the square is a statue of two Flemish heroes, Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, who helped lead an (unsuccessful) uprising against the French in the 1300s.

Another important plaza is the Burg Square, where Bruges’s City Hall is located. Compared with that of Brussels, this city hall is rather unprepossessing, though it is yet another excellent example of secular gothic architecture.

The Basilica of the Holy Blood. Image by Matt Hopkins; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

Near the city hall is Bruges’s most impressive church: the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Though ornately decorated, the church does not look like very much from the outside; indeed I hardly noticed it at first, since the rest of the city is just as attractive. But what I found up the staircase took me by surprise. This is the Chapel of the Holy Blood, dedicated to a vial of Jesus’s blood-stained cloth—supposedly picked up during the Crusades. If memory serves, there was a line of the faithful waiting to do reverence to this holy relic, and so to obtain divine favor. I didn’t join in. But I did admire the church. A vaulted, wooden ceiling focused all attention on the far wall, which is decorated with a colorful 20th century painting of the bloody scene. The walls on each side, and the ceiling above, are decorated in pleasing geometric patterns; and the stained glass, too, is of high quality, only adding to the swirl of color in the space. It is a rather cheerful place for worshiping blood.

I realize that I have come this far without mentioning the canals. The city is criss-crossed with watery channels, another legacy of its days as an active port; and this has earned the city, like Amsterdam, the nickname “Venice of the north.” As you can imagine, the constant presence of water only adds to the city’s considerable charm. The canals prevent Bruges from feeling constrained and claustrophobic, like so many medieval cities. One of the most photogenic spots in the city is the bridge crossing the Minnewater—a sort of pond that used to serve as a mooring-place for ships. From there I spotted a band of roving Spanish musicians, dressed in capes and strumming guitars. Were they street musicians, or just on vacation?

My last stop for the day—and what turned out to be my best experience in Bruges—was De Halve Maan brewery. (I thought that the name meant “half man,” but it means “half moon,” which I think is somewhat less cool.) This is a historic brewery, going back to the 1850s, right in the center of the city; and they give tours. I signed up for the next English group, waited a bit in the gift shop, and then embarked on a journey of discovery. Photos were not allowed, so I can’t give a detailed account of the tour; however, it was 45 minutes well spent. Our guide, a deadpan Flemish woman, took us from the modern brewing equipment on the ground floor, then up several steep and slender stairwells to rooms displaying antique brewing equipment. (Some of the staircases were so precipitous that my life flashed before my eyes; the tour is not well-suited to those with mobility issues.)

This was my first brewery tour, so I was eager to learn how this marvelous liquid is created. The process of making beer is at once extremely complex and beautifully simple, consisting of four natural ingredients (water, barley, hops, yeast) mixed, strained, heated, cooled, and aged in such a way that the end-result is a fizzy, bitter, refreshing and slightly intoxicating substance. I was certainly inspired to have a drink—and, luckily, the tour comes with a beer at the bar downstairs. As another added bonus, the view of Bruges from the top of the brewery is excellent, and photos are allowed. I left the brewery quite impressed with the company. They still make all their beer on site (though it is pumped through an underground tube several miles away for bottling).

The Cathedral is on the left, the Church of Our Lady is on the right

What makes Belgian beer so special? Well, I am not exactly an expert in the subject. But even in my dilettantish tasting of Belgian beer, a definite flavor emerges: rich and sweet, almost like brown sugar. In contrast to many English and American ales, the bitter, floral flavor of hops is never very pronounced. Instead the beer is heavy and scrumptious, like a good dessert. Much of the brewing culture in Belgium dates back to medieval monasteries, a tradition which has led to the country’s beer culture being listed as UNESCO intangible world heritage. Without doubt Belgian beer is one of the treasures and pleasures of Europe.


So ended my day in Bruges. Now it was time to return to Brussels and then to Madrid. Thankfully I took the time to examine my Ryanair boarding pass that night, or else I would not have realized that (of course) Ryanair does not fly out of Brussels’s primary airport, but out of the South Charleroi airport—considerably more difficult to get to. But who could complain about early flights and inconvenient airports when Belgium is the reward?

Central Europe: Plzeň

Central Europe: Plzeň

After seeing everything I wanted to see in Prague, I still had a day to spare before moving on to Nuremberg. Luckily there are some excellent day trips from the Czech capital. There is Karlovy Vary, an attractive town near Prague with famous hot springs, which several people had recommended to me. There is also the Sedlec Ostuary—a world heritage site—a chapel decorated with thousands of human bones in a church in the town of Kutná Hora. But after looking over these and more options, the beer lover in me won out: I had to go to Plzeň.

With a population of about 170,000, Plzeň is the fourth-largest city in the Czech Republic. For much of its history Plzeň was significant as a trade post near the German border. But in the 19th century the city’s importance considerably grew. First, in 1842 the city’s iconic export was invented: Pilsner beer. Shortly later, the city underwent rapid industrialization, turning Plzeň from a rural outpost into a city of factories and breweries.

Getting to Plzeň from Prague is straightforward. I boarded a commuter train from the central train station, Praha hnlavní nádraží, which took me to Plzeň in around an hour. I did not give myself enough time to buy my ticket, however (there are no machines, so you need to wait in line to buy from a person), so I had to rush to catch the train. The only way up from the station to the platforms was on a slow-moving automatic walkway, which was so full of infuriatingly relaxed and immobile people that I had to wait, biting my lip, as the walkway took me forward at around 2 mph, while the train was on the verge of leaving. When I finally reached the end I bolted up the stairs to the platform, running and jumping onto the train just as the doors were closing. Indeed, I had gotten on so fast that I was not even sure it was the right train. But I was in luck.

Unfortunately for me, however, by the time I pulled my stunt all the seats in the train were taken. I had no choice but to stand. So I made my way to the dining car, ordered a coffee, and got out my Kindle to read. I was trying to get through Rousseau’s Emile, but the Romantic philosopher was quickly getting on my nerves and I had trouble paying attention. Time passed this way until, feeling peckish and needing a distraction, I decided I would try the train’s goulash. This is a type of strew, originally from Hungary but now popular throughout Central Europe, made with meat, veggies, and flavored with paprika. It was my first goulash experience; and—contrary to what you might expect from a dining car—it was actually quite good.

Pilzen_entrance

Once arrived, I wasted no time in going to Plzeň’s biggest attraction: the Urquell brewery. The word “Urquell” can be roughly translated as “the source,” and it is appropriate: for it is this company that invented the iconic pale lager, or pilsner beer, which has proven immensely influential. It is said that two-thirds of the beer produced in the world is an adaptation of this Czech invention. And, indeed, every country seems to have its own version of a pale lager: China’s Tsingtao, Japan’s Sapporo, Kenya’s Tusker, Mexico’s Pacífico, America’s Budweiser, Spain’s Mahou. The world cannot seem to get enough of this sour beverage.

Pilzen_glasses

To enter the brewery one must pass through the festive main gate, designed to look like a triumphal arch. In the ticket office there is a large display of antique brewing methods, complete with life-sized sets and dummies. I queued up and bought a ticket for the next English tour—for which, luckily, there was still a spot remaining. Soon I was in a tour group, ready to explore the birthplace of pale lager.

Our tour commenced with some elaborate ceremonial glasses, made on the occasions of visits by European monarchs to the brewery. Then, after explaining something of the history of the place, our guide took us to see some antique carts, train cars, and trucks used to transport Urquell beer back in yonder days. A bus then picked us up and drove us to the bottling plant.

Pilzen_oldtruck

I am always impressed by industrial processes like this. I think of Adam Smith and his pin factory, and marvel how such marvelously complex solutions can arise for such simple challenges. In this case the challenge is to put beer into a bottle or a can. The solution is a massive facility—noisy with mechanical racket, steamy with sweat and spillage, buzzing with electricity and life. We watched the action from an elevated platform. People in waterproof suits marches around the factory floor, while giant conveyor belts swept hundreds of bottles into metal apparatuses—rinsers, inspectors, vacuums, palletizer, depalletizers, feeders, inspectors, packets, dispatchers—each of which performs one specialized function at lightning-fast speed. To put this into numbers, the bottling line can church out 120,000 bottles per hour, and the canning line 37,000 cans per hour. We have come a long way.

Pilzen_bottlingplant

From here we were transported back on the bus, herded into a large elevator—the largest in the Czech Republic, they said—and then shown a film about Pilsner Urquell’s origins, which was projected on a semicircular screen while we sat on a rotating platform. In this film we were informed that the inventor of pilsner beer, Josef Gross (a German), created the beer in response to growing dissatisfaction among the populace with the top-fermented beer. (The yeast rises to the top during fermentation, which occurs at a relatively high temperature.) In response to this, Gross developed a bottom-fermenting beer, which uses a different sort of yeast that requires a lower temperature. And so, pilsner beer was born.

Pilzen_hops

Then we were shown an exhibit about the four ingredients of beer: malt, water, hops, and yeast—with examples of each. I did not know that malt is not a specific type of grain, but is instead any cereal grain (usually barley) which has been made to germinate by soaking in water, and then dried. I tried chewing on a piece of malt; it’s rather hard. But I particularly enjoyed the chance to sniff and taste the hops. As you may know, beer hops are made from crushing up the flowers of the hop plant. The final product looks an awful lot like marijuana, but smells delightful—the floral, bitter, and richly complex flavor that is most notable in strong indian pale ales, though less apparent in pale lagers.

Then we were led into the old factory, no longer in use. The brewing process, however, remains the same; and so the guide (with the help of a video) took us through the steps to make pilsner beer. First, after being mashed, the malt is put into these big copper kettles filled with water; the resultant mixture is called a ‘wort.’ The wort is gradually heated, which converts the malt’s starch into sugar. Then, to kill off unwanted bacteria, the wort is boiled through a process of siphoning off thirds, heating the portion, and then reintroducing it into the main kettle for it to be repeated.

Then this wort is siphoned off into stainless-steel drums—to filter out the solid bits of barley, I believe—and then on to the hopping kettles. Hops are put in and removed three times in 90 minutes, while the liquid is boiling. After that the liquid goes on to a fermentation tank, which is stored outside, where the yeast is finally added. (This is that “bottom-fermenting” yeast I mentioned earlier.) To achieve the right flavor, the temperature of this container must be kept within fairly strict boundaries. And controlling the temperature during fermentation is tricky, since fermentation itself generates heat. The fermentation process takes some few days, if memory serves, and the final product contains both alcohol and carbonation.

This isn’t the end of the process, however, since then yeast must be filtered out, the beer left to age in barrels, and then the final product is pasteurized to ensure longevity. All this was explained to us as we explored the old and then the current factories, both of which are impressive places. I especially liked the futuristic look of the new factory, with shiny copper kettles in a tiled room. But this wasn’t the end of the tour.

Pilzen_brewery

Finally we were led down into the cellars. Underneath the complex, you see, is a massive network of tunnels carved into the ground—miles and miles of them. These were used to keep the beer at a controlled temperature as it aged in barrels. Apparently a rather cool temperature is needed, so ice would be dumped into a massive room at the end of the hall, whose proximity would cool the rest of the network. It must have been chilly indeed, since even without the ice the tunnels were many degrees cooler than outside. (Nowadays the beer is aged in another way, and the tunnels are unused.)

Pilzen_barrels

This is where our tour ended. But not without a tasting, of course. Two bearded gentlemen poured each of us (there were around 30 on the tour) a glass of pilsner beer. It was unfiltered, meaning that the yeast was still in the beer, which gives it a cloudy look. Now, here I have to admit that I am not particularly fond of lagers, and I especially dislike pilsner beer. To me its defining flavor is sourness—lacking the sweetness of wheat beer, the bitterness of ales, and the smoothness of dark beers. But I will drink a pilsner and enjoy it, of course, since any beer is better than none.

The tour was over, having taken about 2 hours. I highly recommend it to anyone with even a slight interest in beer and brewing.

Pilzen_tunnel

I had some time before my return train to Prague. First I ate lunch at a place called the PUB Plzeň, which has great hamburgers. Then I went to see Plzeň’s cathedral, St. Bartholomew. The church has only had cathedral status since 1993, and underwent major renovations and expansions at around that time. As it stands now, the cathedral is an attractive building, both inside and out. But the best part of the visit was ascending the hundreds of steps up to its bell-tower. One must pay a special price to do this, of course, and undergo some claustrophobia, vertigo, and exhaustion on the twisting and narrow stairs. But the view of the surrounding city and countryside is worth it. I particularly admired Plzeň’s main square, which is extremely pretty, full of brightly painted old apartment buildings and futuristic fountains.

Now it was time for me to go. Unfortunately I did not have time to see Plzeň’s Great Synagogue, the second-largest in Europe (though nowadays only about 70 Jews live in Plzeň). But at least this time I got a seat on the train, from which I could appreciate the rolling grassy countryside of the Czech Republic. It is a beautiful country.

Pilzen_city

To Be in Bavaria: Munich

To Be in Bavaria: Munich

Bavaria is a special place. Though this southern German state is full of traditions that are not shared with the rest of Germany, the image of Bavaria has, ironically enough, come to symbolize all of German culture. Giant goblets of beer, yodelling and schuhplattler dancing, jaunty brass bands and lederhosen—all this is mainly found in Bavaria. This phenomenon mirrors the situation in Spain, which is known for flamenco and bullfighting, two traditions most popular in its distinctive southern province, Andalusia, and largely absent from its north. Many of America’s stereotypes come from the south, too, such as our fried food and cowboy culture. I suppose a country is doomed to be identified by its most outlandish customs.

Though the image of Bavaria is often ridiculed—somewhat unfairly, since its silliest aspects are now mostly for the tourists—it has proven very seductive. Millions flock to Munich ever year for its annual Oktoberfest, to be served liters of beer by blonde waitresses in tight-fitting Dirndl dresses. And many millions more celebrate this extravaganza of beer and sausage in replicated festivals all across the world. Beer culture more generally owes much to Bavaria, as microbrewers set up Biergarten style establishments and serve artisanal baked potatoes. So the Bavarians have at least done some things right.

I myself am drawn to this idyllic image of jolly inebriation, which has led me to visit the region twice: First to Munich, and then to Nuremberg and Bamberg.


Munich

I was here, finally here, in the Englischer Garten of Munich.

One of my favorite stories is Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which opens with the novelist Gustave von Aschenbach, strained and fatigued from his writing, taking a stroll in the English Gardens to revive his spirits. And here I was, standing in the same place where that imaginary man strode, melancholy and weary from his struggle to create beauty. More than likely, Thomas Mann himself stood here, too, as he lived in Munich for forty years.

Yet I was as far as it was possible to be from those literary heroes, imaginary or real. I was carrying a bright orange backpack, dressed in a grey hoodie, feeling sleep-deprived, achy, and lightheaded from hunger. Reality often falls short of fiction—and even fact. I had some time to kill before I could check into my Airbnb, and so decided to walk here, in the gardens of my fantasy.

Munich_Englishgarden

The English Gardens take their name from the style of landscape architecture common in eighteenth-century England, wherein whole landscapes were reshaped to create pleasing compositions. The Munich park was designed by Sir Benjamin Thompson, one of those remarkable Eighteenth century Renaissance men; he was a physicist, inventor, and an official in the Bavarian military, in addition to a prolific designer of everything from parks to battleships. You know you have led an eventful life when designing a world-famous park is only a minor episode.

As I walked through the park, feeling heavy and sweaty, I passed by a man in a wetsuit carrying a surfboard, who obviously stuck out among the tourists clad in shorts, sandals, and sunglasses. I did not know what to make of this. Then, five minutes later, an American asked me if I knew where the surfers are. Surfers in a park? It turns out that, yes, there is surfing in the Englischer Garten, at a point in the artificial river where it narrows, creating a perpetual wave, known as the Eisbach Wave.

Extreme sport aside, the most popular activities in the English Gardens are strolling and sunbathing. To my surprise, it is even legal to sunbathe nude in the Englischer Garten, specifically in the Schönfeldwiese (lit. “beautiful field meadow”), as I saw for myself while walking past. This was the second time in my life that I had come upon naked sunbathers, the first being in the Tiergarten in Berlin; and both times I was equally shocked. Public nudity in the center of a municipal park is something unheard of in the United States and in Spain. The Germans seem far more accepting of the human body—in all its hairy, flabby, and sunburned varieties—which I suppose is a good thing, though it does spoil the view a little.

Munich_englishgarden2

Unsolicited flesh notwithstanding, the English Gardens are a delightful place to walk around. As much as I love Madrid, its dry climate makes even its parks seem sandy and bare. A boy from New York cannot help missing dark loamy soil, lush verdure, deep greens, and thick foliage, which Munich has in abundance—at least in summer. Walking paths wind under towering linden trees, which open up to reveal beautiful views, such as the distant Munich skyline or the glasslike surface of the Kleinhesseloher Lake. A massive Biergarten, the second-largest in the city, sits at the center of the park; and as I walked by I admired the giant pieces of roast pork being greedily devoured by the clients. Now here is some flesh I can appreciate.

Feeling hungry myself, I saw down to eat the lunch I had brought with me from Madrid: a salami sandwich. Life is less romantic when you’re on a budget.

§

Munich is both the capital and the largest city of Bavaria. And with a population of about 1.5 million, it is only behind Berlin and Hamburg within Germany for size. Though now one of the quintessentially Germany cities, many of Munich’s most prosperous years occured when the city was not a part of Germany. The region’s Catholic majority has always put it somewhat at odds with the Protestant north of Germany, making it a stronghold for the Counter-Reformation rather than Luther’s Reformation. After suffering Swedish and Habsburg domination, Bavaria emerged once again as an independent kingdom in 1805, with Munich as its capital. And even after Bismark unified the German states, in 1871, Bavaria retained its kingdom and special privileges. It was only the defeat of Germany in World War I that put an end to the rule of the Wittelsbach dynasty.

In the aftermath of the Great War, during the unstable Weimar Republic, Munich became the base of the rising Nazi movement. It was in this city where Hitler attempted his infamous Beer Hall Putsch of 1923—so-called because it began with the storming the Bürgerbräukeller, a beer cellar—in which the Nazis attempted to take control of Bavaria by force. The putsch was a fiasco, poorly planned and quickly put down, and it resulted in Hitler being sent to jail—though he was given an extremely light sentence by sympathetic judges. The experience taught Hitler to seek power through official channels rather than by a coup, which he did successfully ten years later. Once in power, Hitler turned the ridiculous putsch into a national myth, treating the fallen Nazi roughnecks as martyrs. History is invented by the victors. Munich played another infamous role during the leadup to World War II, being the place where Neville Chamberlain, in 1938, officially agreed to cede parts of Czechoslovakia (without consulting the Czechoslovaks) to Nazi Germany, in an attempt to appease Germany.

One of my regrets from my Munich visit was not visiting the Documentation Center, which presents this ugly history to the public. The center opened quite recently, on April 30th of 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the city’s capture by the Allies; and it looks excellent.

§

After wandering around the English Gardens for a few hours, it was time to check into my Airbnb. I was staying with a German family in the suburbs of the city. They were nothing but kind and helpful, and I had an excellent stay. But I was amused at how many rules there were in the house—when to take a shower, where to leave your shoes, what do you can on the Wifi (I had to sign a contract for the internet). The bathroom was like a museum, covered in little laminated signs that gave directions from everything from the shower to the toilet. It all struck me as very “German.” But I did not have time to be indulging in stereotypes. I had a city to explore.

Perhaps the most iconic spot in Munich is neither a palace nor a church, neither a museum nor a monument, but a brewery and beer hall: the Staatliches Hofbräuhaus. This was my first stop. As its name indicates (“Public Court Brewery”), the beer hall is state-owned and traces its origin to Bavarian nobility—specifically, to Wilhelm V, Duke of Bavaria, all the way back in 1589. Owning your own brewery is convenient, since you can brew to your taste and use legislation to create a profitable monopoly, which is exactly what the Dukes of Bavaria did. Even before the Hofbräuhaus was opened the Bavarians instituted their famous purity laws, restricting the ingredients that could be used in beer to three: water, barley, and hops. They did not know about yeast back then, so they didn’t include it; but obviously without yeast beer wouldn’t have any alcohol.

Munich_Hofbrauhaus

The brewery is enormous and still very successful, despite losing its lordly masters. From the outside it doesn’t look like much; but walking through the door, one finds an enormous series of rooms, filled with wooden benches and tables, with waiters running right and left and families and friends lifting enormous mugs to their mouths. In English these are mistakenly called “steins,” which properly only refers to stone mugs, and that only in English. (“Stein” means “stone” in German and doesn’t refer to mugs.) In German it is called a Maßkrug, or simply a Maß. It contains a full liter of beer, as your wrist and then stomach and then bladder will testify to.

Although I felt uncomfortable since I was traveling alone, I decided to walk in and try the famous Germanic liquid. As I made my way to the back room to find a seat, I passed the house band, an ensemble of brass instruments playing jaunty Bavarian music with polka rhythms. It suites the atmosphere. I found a seat at a bench with an older couple—it’s common to share tables. Service was surprisingly prompt, and soon I was faced with my own liter of beer. Gingerly, I sipped it, and then had a gulp: it was good but not exceptional. Feeling somewhat awkward and out of place, I did the responsible thing and downed the beer as quickly as possible in order to leave. Fortified and dizzy, I was ready to explore Munich.

The city center of Munich, like nearly all major German cities, was largely blown to smithereens during the Second World War by British and American bombs. Its reconstruction, however, was both carefully complete and faithful to the destroyed city, following the old medieval city streets. As a result Munich maintains the look and feel of a pristinely historic city. This is especially true of the Marienplatz, Munich’s central square, which is easily one of the most attractive plazas I have seen in Europe. It takes its name from the Virgin Mary, who stands on a column in the center of the square, as a shimmering golden statue. Presiding over this square is the Neues Rathaus, or New Town Hall, built in the 1870s because the old one was too small. Constructed in a glorious neo-gothic style, it is easily among the finest town-halls I have seen in Europe, only rivalled by the ones in Brussels and Vienna—which, not coincidentally, served as its inspiration.

Munich_townhall

It is a short walk from this square to the Asamkirche, the most beautiful church in the city. It takes its name from the brothers who built it as their private chapel: Egid Quirin Asam, a sculptor, and Cosmas Damian Asam, a painter. The church is wedged between their apartments; indeed Egid could look through his window at the altar. Built by themselves for their own pleasure and salvation, and with their own resources, the two brother artists had considerable creative freedom. The result was a masterpiece of design. The church is gorgeous—sumptuously decorated, harmoniously composed. Pictures do not do justice to the feeling of sitting inside the church, getting deeply absorbed in the Baroque decoration, enjoying the play of color and form that covers every surface.

Munich_asamkirche

The oldest church in the city is the Peterskirche, or St. Peter’s Church. Its fairly unassuming exterior gives way to a harmonious interior, with whitewashed walls and gilded statues, pleasingly pure and sweet. After being rebuffed from the church once—they were having mass—I returned to find that there was a free organ concert going on. This was the first trip in which I kept a diary, so I will include an excerpt of what I wrote as I sat there and listened to the performance:

The organ is overpowering when at full blast. Is this what it would have been like to listen to Bach? … I think I heard a tritone. Blasphemy! The organ has such a wide variety of timbres. Subdued, muted, to ringing, reedy, piercing, to clear, flutelike, to rumbling, to screeching.

The piece was the “Salve Regina” by Olivier Latry, a fairly unknown work that, nevertheless, I found to be powerfully enchanting and even otherworldly.

Munich_peterskirche

Munich’s Catholic cathedral is the Frauenkirche, and its two towers, topped with distinctive domes, are visible from far and wide because of the city’s regulation restricting height limits. Like the Peterskirche, the cathedral has whitewashed walls and is even more plainly decorated. The most striking object on display is the marvelous cenotaph of Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor from 1328 to 1347, which is defended by statues of soldiers and knights. Many other members of the Wittelsbach dynasty are buried here, too—including Ludwig III, the last king of Bavaria—though their graves are not as eye-catching.

Munich_tombemperor

Germany, in general, is not terribly expensive. Indeed it is only slightly pricier, on average, than easygoing Spain. But Munich is an exception to this; it is a wealthy city, with a high standard of life, and so visitors must pay their tribute to the Bavarian gods. One testament to the city’s affluence are the cars on the street. Now, I am not particularly fond of cars; I don’t even like driving; so you know that the roads must have been striking for me to take notice. There were high-quality cars—mostly of German make, though not exclusively—everywhere I turned. Stranger still, 90% of these cars were either white, grey, or black—very few were an actual color. When I first noticed this, I waved it away as mere coincidence; but the more I looked, the more I became convinced that Münchners have a marked preference for grayscale locomotion.

It does make sense that Munich would have an eye-catching automobile population, considering that it is the home of one of Germany’s iconic car brands, BMW. There is even a BMW museum in Munich, near the glass tower that houses the company’s headquarters. Again, not being particularly interested in cars, I didn’t go. But you are welcome to.

Munich in general struck me—according to my diary—as a very “European city,” at times reminding me of Pisa, at times of Toulouse, at times of Avila. Old city centers all come to resemble one another after a while. But that does not mean they become any less attractive; and Munich is quite lovely to stroll around, with its medieval layout providing enough variation, and its rows of buildings tall and tasteful, with old and new styles coexisting peacefully. I saw quite a few bachelor and bachelorette parties on the streets—wearing matching hats and shirts, with the bride- or groom-to-be in a silly costume—whose presence inevitably means that you are in a major tourist center. Yet the city has a life of its own, not succumbing completely to tourist bric a brac, but maintaining a strong identity in spite of its cosmopolitan orientation.

Munich_fountain1

One spot stands out for special mention as a walking area, and that is the Königplatz. It is an open green space surrounded by fine neoclassical buildings, very convincing imitations of Greco-Roman structures. Originally built by Ludwig I to house his Greco-Roman statues, this attractive group of classical structures in a big open space proved ideally suited to Hitler’s purposes, which is why he used the Königplatz to hold mass rallies, and even added two more neoclassical buildings to house the remains of the Beer Hall Putsch “martyrs.” The American army tastefully blew these up in 1947. Nearby is the Lenbachhaus, Munich’s most famous art gallery, which has an excellent collection of Der Blaue Reiter (“The Blue Rider”), Munich’s influential expressionist group of artists formed in 1911.

Munich’s role as the capital of the kingdom of Bavaria explains why the city has three palaces (of which I visited two, missing the Schleissheim). The Schloss Nymphenburg is situated somewhat outside the city, but can be gotten to easily with the tram. It was used as a summer residence by the Bavarian royals; and, indeed, the current head of House Wittelsbach, Franz, sometimes lives in this castle—though nowadays he has no power, ceremonial or otherwise. Currently 84 years old, he survived imprisonment in two Nazi concentration camps (the Wittelsbachs were anti-Nazi), and is technically a claimant to the throne of the United Kingdom, though he prefers not to talk about that.

From the outside the palace is ample though not imposing, sweeping across a wide area though not rising to any considerable height. Since I am normally not fond of palaces—all showiness and no substance—I skipped the interior and went straight to the gardens, which are vast and charming. The garden was first of Italian design, then French, and finally English. The Italian style emphasizes symmetry and order; the French style is similarly orderly, but expanded to a monumental scale and filled with ornate fountains. The English style, by contrast, is Romantic: striving to keep some of the ruggedness of nature. This last modification was planned by Friedrich Ludwig von Sckell, who also did much of the work on Munich’s English Gardens. The man was clearly brilliant, since the Nymphenburg gardens are just as enjoyable to walk around, with its long central canal flanked by forest, through which paths wend their way. It is a successful combination of planned and spontaneous design.

Munich_Nymphenburg

A significantly larger palace can be found right in the center of Munich itself: the Munich Residence. Like nearly everything in this city, the palace was badly damaged during World War II, but has been reconstructed—for the most part faithfully, though at times in simplified form. This might account for the strange sterility I sensed when I visited, feeling that the place seemed unused. Added to this, the audioguide was mainly descriptive—explaining a room’s form and function—without providing any historical context. So I toured the palace without knowing who used it, or when. But in its heyday, under the Wittelsbachs, the palace certainly was used, as even the reconstructed version proves.

Munich_residencefountain

Right upon entry I came upon a marvelous fountain made of shells, wonderfully bizarre and ornate. Also memorable was the hall of ancestors, with rococo decorations surroundings portraits of all the Wittelsbach heads, tracing the family back all the way back to Charlemagne himself. (Claiming to be descended from important people is an easy way to seem special.) Even grander is the Renaissance Antiquarium, whose ceiling is decorated with allegories of the seven virtues, surrounded by grotesque decorations inspired by the discoveries at Pompeii. This room was created for the very important purpose of storing and displaying classical busts, and it performs that function marvelously. I also remember a beautiful little chapel, with a blue gilded roof, and a floor and walls of the finest marble. There is also a famous theater, apparently, which I somehow missed. As for the rest, I will let my diary speak:

The royal apartments themselves, with the antechambers, dressing rooms, throne room, bed room, and so on, were exquisite, and yet produced the now-familiar feeling of disgust with so much wealth.

This is not to say that the palace is not worth visiting. To the contrary, I enjoyed the visit far more than I expected. You even get to see some of the royal jewels and treasury, and some of the ceramics produced for the royal family. The seashell fountain alone is worth the price of admission.

Munich_residencecollage

Although I didn’t visit it, I would be negligent if I did not mention the Neuschwanstein Castle. An almost painfully picturesque palace, sitting atop a hill and looking straight out of a children’s book, the Neuschwanstein Castle is about two hours by car from Munich and a very popular day trip.

The story of the castle’s creation is wonderful. Rather than serving any military or governmental function, the castle was the pet project of Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, who was overly fond of Wagner’s operas, and so sought to create a building that embodied the mythical world of Wagner’s heroes and vikings. Unfortunately for him, he did not have the money to see his project to completion, and so used the very convenient recourse of getting heavily into debt. This naturally upset his ministers—who also would have preferred to see him govern rather than indulge in architectural fantasies—who ultimately had the king declared insane and unfit to govern, and then arrested. Shortly after being apprehended, the deposed king took a walk with his psychologist; minutes later the two of them were found dead, floating in shallow water. It is still unclear what happened. He is buried in Munich, in St. Michael’s Church. When it is not horrifying, German history can be quite whimsical.

48 Hours in London

48 Hours in London

I’ve fallen far behind in my travel posts, and now I find myself in the embarrassing position of writing about a trip I took over a year ago. It also seems that, no matter how hard I try to be brief, I end up writing more and more. Well, enough prefatory remarks; on to business.


Introduction

For an American, there is something religious about visiting London for the first time. We have been hearing about the place all our lives. Dry humor, pints of beer, red phone booths, black taxis, fish and chips, bad teeth, good tea, bad weather, good tikka masala, the British Invasion, the British Parliament, the British Empire, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Beatles, Monty Python, Dr. Who, Harry Potter—London is the focal point of all our stereotypes, good and bad, of England and the English.

This is important for us Americans, since England is the only other country whose media we regularly consume. English media is so important for us because of our shared language. Unlike in Spain—where English-language songs often play on the radio (and people sing these songs without understanding the lyrics), and where American shows, overdubbed in Spanish, are extremely popular—in the United States we don’t listen to music in a foreign language if we can help it, and we only watch television that was originally made in English (overdubbing looks silly). This provincial preference for English media limits our options of foreign media mainly to England and Australia, and England has been the clear favorite.

A consequence of this popularity of English media is that Americans have internalized a highly partial picture of the English character. We associate the English with sophistication, elegance, wit, good manner, royalty, and the historical past.

This is almost the polar opposite of the English reputation in Spain. You see, Spain is an excellent travel destination for English holidaymakers—cheap, close, and sunny—and as a result, lots of English tourists come to Spain looking for a good time. A “good time” entails drinking, of course, and thus there are lots of drunken English people stumbling around city centers on any given night. As a result, Spaniards think of the English, not as genteel aristocrats, but as tipplers.

(Parenthetically, the English also have very different alcohol consumption habits than the Spanish. On a Friday or Saturday night, people in Spain begin drinking in earnest after dinner—which means 11 pm at the earliest. They often don’t even leave their apartment to go to bars and clubs until 2 in the morning, and don’t return home until dawn the next day. In London, on the other hand, drinking begins as soon as people leave work, at 5 pm. This is due, in part, to an old law in London that required pubs to close down at 11. So the English stop drinking when the Spanish barely start.

(This difference in schedule is supplemented by a difference in speed and volume. Spaniards are rarely visibly drunk. I have seen very few Spanish people stumbling from alcohol; instead, they focus on maintaining a level of comfortable tipsiness for a long period of time. Compared with Brits, Spaniards sip their drinks, and eat a lot while they drink. English people, by contrast, get properly drunk, and fast, much like many Americans do. As a consequence, Brits can be very loud drinkers—in my experience, at least. This is an especially interesting contrast, I think, since in every other circumstance Brits tend to be mucher more quiet than Spaniards.)

Of course, both the American and the Spanish stereotype is an over-generalization; they are based on very partial exposures to the English character. Partial and false as they may be, however, these stereotypes did succeed in endowing England with a certain contradictory mystique—a place full of witty drunkards, elegant and boisterous, cultured and slovenly? I needed to go see London for myself, to catch a glimpse of the reality behind the reputation.

My problem was that, at the time, I was particularly low on funds. And however distorted all the other stereotypes may be about London, this one is true: London is expensive. Well, it’s expensive if you enjoy eating, sleeping indoors, using transportation, and doing any activity besides walking and sitting outside. This was a few months before the Brexit referendum, and the pound was still strong.

As a result, my short trip to London—barely 48 hours—became a frantic exercise in traveling cheaply. I didn’t buy an oyster card, and I didn’t use the Tube or the buses. I ate “meal deals”—pre-packed sandwiches at Tesco supermarkets, not terribly delicious—instead of paying for dinner in a restaurant. And I focused on visiting museums, which are free in London, instead of other popular sites.


Arrival & First Impressions

As usual, I traveled with Ryanair. My plane arrived in Stansted, the smallest of London’s airports, where I had to fill out a form and wait in a long queue to enter the country. The English, it seems, are almost as paranoid about their borders as we are in the United States. From Stansted, I took the so-called Stansted Express to London’s central Liverpool Station. The ride took about an hour, and was not cheap. This is a typical Ryanair experience: the flight is inexpensive, but uncomfortable; and you land in an unpopular airport far outside the city. I am a loyal customer.

I sat in the train—dazed from lack of sleep, filled with nervous energy, physically miserable but mentally awake—and stared out the window in disbelief. Was I really here? Was this England, the land of dry humor and wet weather? I gazed out at fleeting patches of green countryside as the train sped by, and savored the delightful names of the train stations between Stansted and London. (Of course I can’t remember any of the names now; but as I look on Google maps, I find such gems as Matching Tye, Hartfield Heath, Hastingwood, Theydon Bois.)

English novels—from Austen, to Dickens, to Rowling—have powerfully shaped the American imagination of the past; and thus, by association, English place-names strike many Americans as irresistibly charming. Each name seems to be the title of another great novel, filled with irony and romance, and written with quaint wit. Likewise, the English countryside—a neatly trimmed park, whose rolling hills are covered in a grey mist—is featured in so many films that even the snatches of green I saw out the train window filled me with delight.

These feelings of romance and fantasy are, I suspect, nearly universal for Americans visiting England, and specifically London, for the first time. England is the only foreign country we regularly see in television and movies. This gives the experience of visiting England the effect of stepping into a movie set—everything is familiar, and yet unreal. The same thing happens, I believe, to many who visit New York for the first time. Many people have independently told me that it felt like they were in a movie, since so many landmarks and features were familiar to them from films.

The train arrived, and I got out to go find my Airbnb. I was on edge. The combination of sleep deprivation (the flight was terribly early) with the usual stress of navigating a foreign city (my phone didn’t have service), plus the feeling of unreality that comes from actually being in a place which I’d been hearing about all my life—all this combined to make me edgy and oversensitive. The double-decker red buses, the black taxis, the cars driving on the wrong side of the road, the eccentric road signs (including the delightfully existential “Change Priorities Ahead”), pubs with absurd names (“Ye Old Cheshire Cheese,” on Fleet Street), the red phone booths scattered seemingly at random (apparently, the city had once sold all these phone booths, only to regret the decision and then repurchase as many as they could)—my first impressions of London did contain many of ye quaint olde stereotypes that I expected.

Red Telephone Booths

But one thing that, as a New Yorker, always surprises me when I visit a new city is the lack of skyscrapers. Madrid has only four buildings which can reasonably be called skyscrapers, and they’re located in the north of the city, far outside the center. London has its own share of skyscrapers, to be sure. But walking around in London has nothing of that vertiginous feeling that New York produces, the feeling of being crushed by steel and glass, the feeling of constantly craning one’s neck. I had always thought of London as being a huge and imposing place, so this lack of skyscrapers did disconcert me somewhat.

In many other respects, however, London can be easily compared with New York: the bustling streets, the flashy billboards and ever-present advertisements, the endless shopping, the infinite variety of chain restaurants, the ethnic diversity, the smell and the grime. London even has the same phony Buddhist monks trying to scam tourists into giving them money. (You can find a great story about them here; and in case you’re wondering, if someone is aggressively asking you for money, you can safely assume that they’re not a Buddhist monk.)

As I discovered when I got to my Airbnb, one way that London is incompatibly different from both my country and Spain is the style of its outlets. I had to buy a power-adaptor there; and like everything in London, it wasn’t cheap. Be wise and buy one ahead of time.

These were my first impressions, hazy and distorted, as I walked from the station to my Airbnb. Already I was running short of time. It was midday Friday, and my flight home would leave early on Sunday. So I set out to the first place on my list, the National Gallery.


A Note on Cuisine and Language

I should preface my trip to the National Gallery with a mention of a small restaurant, the Breadline, which can be found nearby. I decided to eat there because it had fish and chips—I know it’s silly, but I couldn’t leave London without eating that iconic meal—and because its prices were eminently reasonable. The food was plain and basic, but nonetheless, for me, extremely satisfying. I even returned the next day to try an English breakfast, which I quite liked.

English food has a poor reputation, and I understand why; it is hardly a cuisine designed to have universal appeal. Nevertheless, if those two meals can be trusted to give a fair representation (an open question), I can say that I am a fan. There is something about greasy fried potatoes and fried fish, covered in white vinegar, that just feels right to me. And sausage and beans for breakfast is brilliant.

While I was eating, a young British man came in and said “A small white coffee to take away.” This is an excellent example of the differences between British and American English. This sentence, uttered in New York, would produce only bafflement. You would have to translate it to “A small coffee with milk to go,” if you wanted to be understood. I run into these differences constantly as I teach English. Before coming to Spain, I thought the differences between British and American English were minor and negligible, besides the accent; but I was wrong. Working with British textbooks and materials can be extremely frustrating, since often I don’t know what certain expressions or words mean—which is embarrassing when my students ask. Not only that, but there are a few subtle grammatical differences between the dialects, such as in the use of the perfect tense. But this is a digression of a digression; now to the museum.


The National Gallery

It is immensely satisfying to simply walk into a museum, without fees or lines, like it’s your own home. The experience is even better when the museum is one of the best in the world. The National Gallery is only behind the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan in visitors per year; and this is especially impressive considering the museum’s collection is comparatively small, easily viewable in three hours or so. But for those with any sensitivity to art, these three hours will be among the most rewarding of your aesthetic life; for the National Gallery’s collection is remarkable both for its breadth and its excellence. The only museums I’ve visited that compare in the average quality of the paintings on display are the Prado in Madrid and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Every room in the gallery contains a masterpiece, often many.

Indeed, there are so many wonderful paintings—paintings I had seen and loved in art history books—that I cannot even hope to mention all of them in this post, much less describe the impression each one made on me. Nevertheless, I can’t resist the temptation to dwell on some of these exquisite works of the human imagination.

The first painting which attracted my attention was the portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger. This is an extraordinary demonstration of the portraitist’s art; instead of a photographic image, capturing the physical surface of the famous writer, we get a glimpse of the writer’s mind. As in any excellent portrait, the inner is made manifest in the outer without compromising the realism of the portrait. His sharply angular face bespeaks cleverness; his gaunt features reveals a life dedicated to the mind and not the body; his half-closed eyes and serene expression show calm intelligence and a wisdom that sees beyond earthly troubles. We also catch a hint of Erasmus’s self-complacent vanity: he looks a little too comfortable in his fine fur robe, and his hands rest a little too easily upon a volume of his own writings. Is there a more convincing portrait of the scholar?

Erasmus
Erasmus

Holbein has an even more famous work on display at the museum: The Ambassadors. This is a portrait of two aristocratic ambassadors (their identity was long debated), in a room which includes an exquisitely-rendered still-life of several objects—a lute, several globes, a psalm-book, and various instruments of navigation. But the most memorable, and bizarre, feature of this painting is the giant anamorphic skull in the center. Anamorphic means that it is purposefully distorted when viewed head-on, and must be seen from a specific perspective to be seen properly. When viewed from the front, the skull is just a strange grey diagonal shape; but when you walk to the painting’s left, the skull comes into focus. I can only imagine the technical virtuosity required of a painter to pull off this trick with such consummate perfection; when seen properly, the skull is finely detailed, beautifully shaded, and anatomically accurate. Holbein painted this tour de force in 1533.

The Ambassadors
The Ambassadors

The National Gallery also possesses what is probably the most famous papal portrait in history: Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II. Julius was the most important of the high renaissance popes; he is responsible for the beginning of the Vatican museum, Michelangelo’s commission to paint the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael’s commission to paint the Vatican Library. Not only that, Julius originated the idea of tearing down the original St. Peter’s and building a new one. Such a man must have had enormous energy and a deep sensitivity to art. And yet in Raphael’s portrait we see him weary, worn-out, and melancholic. He is gently gripping a handkerchief in one hand and his chair in the other; his eyes are hollow, and the wrinkled skin of his face droops loosely from his skull. He seems to be just feebly holding on to the last chords of life, staring at his own end with resignation. Such terrible realism was entirely new in papal portraiture.

Julius II
Julius II

Before going to the National Gallery, I didn’t look up any of the famous pictures that could be found there; so I was surprised and delighted when I found myself face to face with one of my favorite pictures, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. I remember first seeing this portrait in Ernst Gombrich’s Story of Art, and being stunned. In the context of its time, 1434, the portrait is startling for its realism and its domestic subject: a marriage contract taking place in a bedroom. To a modern eye, perhaps the portrait no longer seems terribly realistic; the husband, with his pale expressionless face and his oversized clothes, always looks like he belongs in a Tim Burton film to me; but this only adds to its charm. The little toy-sized dog in the foreground—as adorable as ever—and the mirror in the background—showing us the whole scene from reverse in a distorted perspective—add to the painting’s undeniable power.

Alfonsini Portrait
Arnolfini Portrait

There are dozens more paintings—of equal importance and beauty—that I could devote an unworthy paragraph to describing; but this would only swell this post to unartistic dimensions. Yet I cannot move on without mentioning the National Gallery’s collection of Italian Renaissance art. This includes Piero del Pollaiolo’s masterpiece, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, a landmark in the realistic use of perspective, with the saint enricled by crossbowmen.

Preist with Arrows
The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian

Even more important is one of the two versions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. The other one is in the Louvre, and is usually considered the original; but I think the Gallery’s version, with its deeper shades and more dramatic chiaroscuro, is lovelier. Apart from its beauty, this painting is notable for its setting. Leonardo, as is typical of him, creates a carefully naturalistic background for this traditional Biblical scene. In previous eras, the background of paintings was almost entirely neglected; monochrome gold foil set off the human figures. But in Leonardo’s masterpiece, the background—a cave, which was an unprecedented choice—swallows up its subject. Such careful attention to rendering nature was something new in history.

Virgin of the Rocks

I also cannot move on without mention of Rembrandt. The National Gallery has several of Rembrandt’s most highly regarded works, including two of his self-portraits. Looking into the eyes of a famous artist, as he stares back at you from a self-portrait, is an unnerving experience; suddenly the gap in space and time that separates your lives vanishes; the artist has transcended death, and even transcended life; his focused gaze, dry pigment on a canvas, will outlast even your own living flesh. On a less dramatic note, the Gallery also has one of Velazquez’s most famous works: The Rockeby Venus, famous for being one of the few female nudes in Spanish art (one other being Goya’s La Maja Desnuda).

I will muster my self-control and mention only two more works.

By common consent, the greatest painter in English history is Joseph Mallord William Turner; and several of his finest works can be seen at the Gallery. Of these, my favorite is Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway. A locomotive emerges from a tempest, a black tube bursting through grey fog. Every line and color is blurred as if seen from an out-of-focus camera. All we can see in the background are hints of blue sky, a bridge, and a lake where some people are rowing in a little boat.

Turner Steam and Rail

In this paintings, Turner seems to have both anticipated and surpassed the impressionists in rendering momentary flashes of life. The swirl of indistinct color is absolutely hypnotic; yet the painting is not merely pretty, as are many impressionistic paintings, but a convincing symbol of the relationship between human technology and natural power. The train punches through the mist, in a confident gesture of industrial might; and yet the stormy clouds that swirl all around menace the lonely black locomotive. Both the train and its surrounding are impressive, even sublime, but also inhumanly vast and cold; and the two slight figures in the rowboat below reveal our true vulnerability in the face of these forces.

The last painting I’ll mention before forcing myself away—even remembering the Gallery is a pleasure—is Bathers at Asnières, by Georges Seurat. This painting was completed in 1884; but it was not until many years after Seurat’s death that it was recognized as a masterpiece. It depicts several middle-class Parisians relaxing by the Seine on a hot summer day. The technique Seurat used is almost pointillistic in its precise use of strokes and colors, relying mainly on bright horizontal daubs. The combination of statuesque modeling and poses—the bathers’ heavy bodies and horizontal orientation remind me of an Egyptian frieze—with Seurat’s delicate treatment of brushstrokes, makes the painting look crystal-clear from a afar and blurred from up close. The treatment really captures the feeling of heat: how everything can seem perfectly clear in the summer sun, and yet distant objects are blurred.

Bathers

Complementing this tension between form and vagueness, is an emotional tension between fun and desolation. At first glance the bathers are having a wonderful day. They are at leisure, enjoying the sunshine, the smooth grass, and the cool water. But then you notice how isolated is each one of the figures. They are all in their own world; many seem lost in thought. Their expressions are emotionless; their hunching posture bespeaks weariness. The factory spewing smoke in the background adds another hint of gloom.

To me, the painting is a devastating portrait of the isolation and meaninglessness of contemporary life. We imagine the figures working 9 to 5 jobs in offices during the week, performing mechanical tasks that mean nothing to them. Then they go to their usual restaurant for a bite to eat and then to their apartment to sleep. When with their friends, they drink and talk of trivialities. On a holiday, they come here, and stare into space, unable to articulate to themselves or anyone else the strange sense of emptiness that engulfs them whenever they have a free moment. It is a comfortable world that conceives of nothing beyond wealth and luxury; and its members, when released from their usual routine, can think of nothing to do. Convention dictates that they come here to ‘relax’. The painting is the perfect complement and illustration of Albert Camus’s The Stranger: it is a painting of a world of strangers, to one another and to themselves.


The next day, I headed to one of the other great museums in London: the British Museum. Originally I planned to include my account of that great institution in this post; but I ended up writing so much that I decided that the British Museum deserved its own separate essay, which you can find here.


Brief Snatches of London Life

When I wasn’t visiting museums, I had a few spare hours to wander around the city. This allowed me to glimpse, all too briefly, most of the major sights in London—the places that must be given a mention and a respectful nod in any post about that old city.

The first landmark I insisted on seeing was Big Ben. A trip to London without seeing that venerable clocktower would be like a trip to Pisa without its leaning campanile. I was so ignorant when I visited London (and remain, despite strenuous efforts) that I didn’t even know that Big Ben was attached to the British parliament building, the Palace of Westminster. It was a delightful surprise to find these two landmarks joined together.

Westminster Palace

Although it looks gothic, the palace is of fairly recent construction. The old Westminster palace burned down in 1834 (Turner witnesses the fire, and painted several pictures of it). The new building was designed by Charles Barry, who used a Gothic revival style in his plan. I doubt there is any parliament buildings in the world so elegant, so imposing, and so charming. Few experiences in London, if any, can do a better job of creating that Hollywood sensation of being in a movie than standing on the Westminster bridge, seeing that palace and the clocktower, and hearing the ringing bells of Big Ben chime out the hour.

From there I walked away from the bridge, pausing to examine the statue of Winston Churchill (covered in pigeon droppings) in the nearby plaza, and went to Westminster Abbey. In my very limited experience, this is easily the most beautiful church building in London. I can’t say much about it, because I didn’t go inside—it was closed by the time I arrived, and in any case I didn’t want to pay the steep entry fee—but I can say that its façade is exquisite, especially the north entrance. Funnily enough, Westminster Abbey is not an abbey—at least, not anymore. Originally it was an abbey of the Benedictine monks, but after the Protestant Reformation, and after a brief stint as a cathedral, the abbey was designated a church. For the last 1,000 years it has been the site of coronations and royal weddings.

Westminster Abbey

The walk from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace is about 15 minutes—slightly longer if, like me, you walk through St. James’s Park. I highly recommend this, since the park is absolutely lovely.

Architecturally, Buckingham Palace isn’t much to look at; it presents itself as a cheerless, square, grey block. The building was not originally designed as a royal residence; it only became the seat of the monarchy in 1837, during the reign of Queen Victoria. The palace takes its name from the Duke of Buckingham, who originally had it built. It sits at the end of the Mall—a major road often used for processions—in a roundabout in which stands the golden Victoria Memorial, which commemorates that famous queen.

Buckingham Palace

Even so, neither the monument nor the palace would attract a great deal of attention, I suspect, were it not for the Queen’s Guard. Equipping guards with antique weapons and dressing them in bright red outfits with fluffy tall hats seems to be one of those conspicuously impractical things that wealthy and powerful people do to showcase their wealth and power. Your average rich entrepreneur or politician could not afford to keep a corps of totally inefficient guards performing ceremonial movements all day (which are, naturally, supplemented by other guards using modern weapons, keeping careful watch, and wearing less conspicuous clothes). Here is an incident that demonstrates the guards’ mainly ceremonial role: in 1982 a man managed to evade the palace guard and make his way to the Queen’s bedroom, where he was apprehended by the city police.

I spent some time watching the guards march back and forth, their limbs as stiff as a wooden nutcracker. Purely as athletic performers, the soldiers are undeniably impressive: the timing, the coordination, the posture, the endurance—it must require excellent physical condition and serious training to keep up the routine, especially considering that they wear those clothes even in hot weather. The guards now mainly function as a tourist attraction and an amusing symbol of British culture; but to be fair, the Queen’s Guard aren’t the only soldiers to wear funny clothes (think of the Swiss Guard in the Vatican) or to engage in elaborate ceremony purely for show (think of the tomb of the unknown soldier in Washington D.C.).


By the time I left the British Museum the next day, I only had about 6 hours left before I’d have to go to sleep and say goodbye to London. The best way to get the most out of this time, I figured, was a free walking tour. The guide was excellent, and the tour just what I wanted. Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the company or of our guide; he introduced himself as the only American tour guide in London—so he shouldn’t be too hard to find. (But apparently this isn’t true; a Google search reveals an American woman named Amber who also gives tours.)

The tour focused on the City of London. You may not know—I certainly didn’t—that the “City of London” refers to the original part of the metropolis, founded by the Romans way back when. This original City of London is now only a tiny fraction of the greater metropolitan area; indeed, it is quite a small place, having an area of only one square mile. This city is far older than England; it has enjoyed special privileges (or, to use the phrase of the Magna Carta, “ancient liberties”) since the Norman Conquest;  and even now it retains the privilege to create many of its own regulations, independent of the greater metropolitan area or of England herself. The city has laxer building codes, which explains why so many of London’s skyscrapers are found there, and also looser financial regulations, which explains why it remains the center of London’s economic life. The City of London is home to the Bank of London, the London Stock Exchange, and Lloyd’s of London (the insurance market).

The tour began at Temple Station. Our guide took us along the river and then down Fleet Street, giving us bits of details about London’s past and present. We walked by Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of the oldest and best known pubs in London, famous both for its silly name and its dark, windowless interior; and this prompted our guide to embark on a long, impassioned explanation of London pub culture. Though an American, he was clearly a convert to the pub way of life; he had strong opinions about what made a pub good or bad; and he had pub recommendations for nearly any area of the city. (I was so inspired that, after the tour, I went into a pub to get a drink; but the beer was so expensive and so mediocre that my disappointment was even more bitter than the beer.)

Soon we reached St. Paul’s Cathedral. The tour didn’t pause for us to go inside; and, in any case, the entrance fee is formidable enough to discourage penurious travelers like me. Among other things, St. Paul’s is famous for having one of the tallest domes in the world. But the present St. Paul’s replaced an older, even taller cathedral (well, it was taller before its spire was destroyed by lightning), which was badly damaged in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The present building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and completed in his lifetime. Wren was, if not the greatest, at least the most prolific architect in England’s history. He designed and oversaw the construction of no less than 52 churches after the Great Fire. The architect himself is buried in the crypt of the cathedral, in a modest grave that says “Reader, if you seek his monument—look around you.”

St. Paul's Buildings

From there we moved on to the Monument to the Great Fire, also designed by, you guessed it, Sir Christopher Wren. As our guide pointed out, the monument—a tall doric column that originally rose far above its surroundings—is now hemmed in by neighboring buildings and dwarfed by modern architecture. The guide used this as an example of the tendency of Londoners to be more interested in the future than the past.

To emphasize this point, he directed our attention to the skyscraper at 20 Fenchurch Street, a bizarre, top-heavy construction, completed in 2014, whose shape quickly earned it the nickname ‘The Walkie Talkie’. This building won—and earned—an award for ugliness. (It was also discovered that the building’s concave shape focused the sun’s rays strongly enough to damage cars, ignite doormats, and fry eggs; a screen has since been installed to prevent this from happening.) But the Walkie Talkie is only one of the many skyscrapers that have sprung up in the City of London in recent memory, despite concerns that these tall monstrosities will dwarf and obstruct historic buildings.

Walkie Talkie
Walkie Talkie

From the cathedral, we went down towards the river and ended up under London Bridge. Many people, including me, assume from the nursery rhyme that London Bridge is a tourist attraction; indeed, the justly famous Tower Bridge, which spans the Thames nearby (see below), is often mistakenly called the London Bridge. Sad to say, the current London Bridge is a brutalist piece of concrete and steel, a minimalistic slab of stone that stretches across the Thames, without charm, beauty, or really any distinguishing quality.

The nursery rhyme dates from a time when a different London Bridge spanned the Thames. The ‘Old’ London Bridge, built in 1209 and demolished in 1831, rested on stone arches and was covered in wooden buildings (which proved to be a fire hazard). It was famous for being the site where the severed heads of those executed for treason, dipped in tar and impaled on pikes, were displayed for passersby to take heed. William Wallace’s head was the first to play this role.

In 1831, the ‘New’ London Bridge was built to replace the crumbling medieval construction; this bridge also rested on arches, but it was taller and so allowed bigger ships to pass underneath. In the 1960s it was discovered that London Bridge was falling down (sinking into the riverbed) and had to be replaced. In true English entrepreneurial spirit, the bridge was sold; an American oil tycoon, Robert McCulloch, bought the bridge, disassembled it, shipped it to the United States, and then reassembled it in Lake Havasu City, Arizona—a little piece of English history in the American south. The current behemoth was finished in 1972.

The tour came to an end front of the Tower of London. Once again, I didn’t go inside that old castle—I am really exposing myself as a pathetic traveler, I know—but contented myself with walking around the perimeter. From the outside, the Tower of London doesn’t seem to merit the name “tower”; the White Tower, the central citadel which sits at the center of the castle complex, is less than 100 feet tall—almost invisible in the context of London. The castle is quite venerable; it was first constructed by the Normans in the 11th century, and was expanded in the preceding two centuries. At present the Tower of London is a large complex with two concentric layers of stone walls surrounding the central keep, and some additional buildings such as a chapel and a barracks. The outer wall is surrounded by a moat, now left dry. Besides the castle itself, visitors can see several historical objects on display, such as Henry VIII’s armor and—most notably—the Crown Jewels of England.

The Tower of London has played an important and often a nefarious role in English history. For a long time it served as the British version of the Bastille, as a prison for traitors and other political pests. Anne Boleyn, unfortunate wife of Henry VIII, is the most famous prisoner ever to be held and executed in the tower; legend has it that her ghost still travels through the old castle, her severed head under her arm. But as I stood there looking at that stone pile, I thought only of Thomas More, the British intellectual who dreamed of a utopia with freedom of religion, and who was imprisoned in the tower and then executed for being true to his Catholic faith (also by Henry VIII). More’s head was eventually covered in tar and displayed on a pike on the old London Bridge.

The tour guide ended with a short speech, which I will try to reproduce here:

“In this tour, we’ve seen many different types of power. We have the political and military power of the Tower of London, the religious power of St. Paul’s cathedral and the Church of England, and the economic power of the London Stock Exchange. And this, ultimately, is what the City of London has always been about: the use of power to control its own destiny. It’s a place oriented towards the future, constantly striving to master whatever is the next form of social power in order to maintain its dominance in the world’s affairs.”

And this strikes me as perfectly true.

From the Tower of London I made a quick walk to the nearby Tower Bridge. This is the iconic bridge often mistakenly called the London Bridge. It’s a pretty sight, with two neo-Gothic towers supporting two platforms, one higher and one lower. Built in the 1890s, its design, by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, was innovative: a combined suspension bridge and drawbridge. The idea (according to the tour guide) was to allow pedestrians to keep using the bridge even when the drawbridge was drawn up to allow ships to pass.

Pedestrians soon learned, however, that walking up the stairs in one of the towers, crossing the upper platform, and then walking down the stairs in the other platform, took even more time than just waiting for the drawbridge to close again. Accordingly, pedestrians hardly ever used the upper platform, which came to be frequented mainly by criminals and prostitutes; it was closed in 1910. Nowadays, you need to pay an entrance fee to go up to the upper walkway. This is just another example of a brilliant idea that doesn’t take into account basic human realities: an innovative plan for a bridge that ignores the time and effort needed to climb several flights of stairs. It is certainly pretty, though.

Tower Bridge

As my last stop I made my way to Shoreditch, a neighborhood which had been recommended to me by a Londoner in my Spanish class. Shoreditch is London’s Williamsburg: a previously working class neighborhood that has been gentrified, and is now home to trendy restaurants and technology companies. The area even looks like Williamsburg, with narrower streets and older, shorter buildings, full of colorful shops and cafes. The population, too, is almost indistinguishable from its New York counterpart: men with large mustaches, plaid shirts, and suspenders; women with half their heads shaven, nose rings, and small, tasteful tattoos—in a word, hipsters. I felt right at home. The gentrification is so extreme as to be beyond parody; there is, for example, a cafe, the Cereal Killer Cafe, that serves only breakfast cereal.

To illustrate my own complicity in the world of hipsterdom, I went to a cafe famous for its rainbow-colored bagels, the Brick Lane Beigel Bake. This little cafe is open 24 hours a day, it is cheap, and it is excellent. I didn’t order a rainbow bagel, but instead a ‘hot salt beef’ on a roll. The beef comes with pickles and strong, superb mustard. I had two (for a very reasonable price) and I was stuffed. Another positive mark for English cuisine.

My time was up. My flight was leaving at seven the following morning, which meant I had to wake up at four to give myself enough time to walk to the train station and take the train to the airport.

All told, I spent less than 48 hours in London. I was constantly tired, hungry, and physically exhausted. I ate little, I slept less, and I walked almost constantly—more than 10 hours each day. I spent as little money as I could, and still the trip was expensive. I learned as much as I could, but left the vast majority of the city unseen and unknown. The trip was a physical ordeal and a financial hardship. But in return for all this trouble, I encountered, however briefly, one of the great cities of the world.