Thursday, December 29, 2016

BELGIUM 2016: Two Abbeys

Not that we planned it, mind you, but we really did see two Christmas markets, two basilicas, and two abbeys on our trip to Leuven, Belgium, a month ago.  All in the space of 5 days.

There are actually 4 abbeys in Leuven and, after some wee research, we picked one of them to visit.  While there, we discovered nothing was open for visitors but were directed to another one 33 km away.  That's how we ended up visiting two!

1.  Park Abbey, Leuven, Belgium, founded in 1129.

We chose Park Abbey because of its 104 acres of "contemplation, tranquility, and silence."
In fact, we first walked around the complex, viewing the abbey from across the fish pond.

It was a frosty, nippy morning, perfect for "contemplation, tranquility, and silence."

The entrance into the abbey complex is an invitation.

St. Norbert's Gate, next to the cemetery, beckoned us towards the church...

which rises above the complex...but, sadly, which wasn't open that day.

So, because we love cemeteries, we chose not to be disappointed.

We learn a lot about a people and culture by wandering their cemeteries.

65% of Belgium is Christian, with 58% of them Roman Catholic.
"Holy Mary, Mother of God."

It was after the cemetery when we met the lady who told us about another abbey we'd surely like 
which has a lovely café and gift shop, only 33 km. away.  So off we went.

2.  Averbode Abbey, Diest, Belgium, founded in 1134.

From where we parked, we had to walk through a lovely forest to reach the abbey. 
It really was a day for "contemplation, tranquility, and silence."

Another entrance...another invitation.

And once inside the complex, there was the church, finished in 1672!

I always wonder what my preacher dad would think if this were his parish,
complete with sundial.

This time the church was open.

And as so often happens, we had to pass through the choir to reach the altar.
If you ever sang in the church choir (as I did), can you imagine singing here?
My mother was my church choir I wonder what she would think of this.

Or having two organs for accompaniment (both of which she could play, I'm sure)?

Impressions.  Impressions.  Impressions.

We even spotted a trompe-lóeil painting (top-left).

After the church (no cemetery was visible but surely there was one?), 
were walked outside the complex around the perimeter to find the gift shop and café.
But it was not our day for that because it was Monday, and both were closed.

However, we still got the best of both worlds at two different abbeys in Belgium:
a cemetery and an abbey church.  What more could we possibly need!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Season's Greetings from the Netherlands

We interrupt this broadcast to share some seasonal greetings from here where we live in the Netherlands!

First of all, remember how we used to have a Christmas tree like this in our apartment?
Every year, that is, until I needed the space for my exercise bike after knee replacement in 2015.

So, both last year and this year, we opted for a wee live tree sitting on the bookcase.
And Astrid is now the one who decorates it...with a bit of help from me.
An exercise bike AND a Christmas tree, just because you need priorities.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

You may also remember that every year at this time our city, Gorinchem, holds a Santa Run for charity.  Astrid and I ran it my second winter here, in December of 2010, when we had...drum roll, please...S N O W.  This year Astrid ran it with her son Jeroen, while I took the pics:

All 3 km of it, over in almost a flash.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, because there was first a half-hour warm-up at the town 
square.  I love how everybody and her aunt and uncle participate.  It's a family affair.
Over 1,000 runners this year raised €28,000.

What a great way to raise money for charity, right?

After the warm-up, I went to one of my favorite spots on the citadel trail to catch them.
That's Astrid (bottom-left) trying to pass the ones in front of her...once she spotted  me.

What a colorful, soulful event, year after year, snow or no snow.
(We can always wish for snow next year!)

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

That afternoon (which was last Saturday, incidentally), we drove out into the polder for lunch at our favorite pannenkoeken restaurant.  I wanted to see "the brethren" again.

What is it about sheep!

When I got out of the car, Astrid whistled for the sheep to come over, which they did.
But who expected THIS!  A sneezing fit.  HAHAHA!
It made my day.

But as they say, all good things must come to an end.
Even sheep are easily bored?

Last evening we celebrated a Christmas meal with 30 neighbors here where we live in the retirement center.  Tonight we'll celebrate another Christmas meal with our very dear friends at the Malle Molen (the Silly Mill).  And then on Sunday, Christmas Day, we'll celebrate the BIG Christmas meal at our favorite Greek restaurant nearby.  That's THREE festive meals this year, our gifts to each other.  And why not?  It only happens once a year.

Then, on the 2nd Christmas Day, Monday, (a Dutch holiday), we are scheduled to see the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One, with Femke and Jeannette, followed by some up-close-and personal hapjes (snacks) in their home to end the holiday.

Good God, Good Friends, Good food!

It's like the celebration never ends!  But there you have it...a run-down for this magical time of the year (even without snow).  My wishing cap is on, not only for snow but for magic everywhere to settle things down a bit, all over the world.

So, to you who celebrate it, may there be wonder, joy, health, peace and love.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

BELGIUM 2016: Two Basilicas

By now you know that Astrid and I LOVE church architecture here in Europe and make a point of grabbing it whenever/wherever we can.

It didn't take long to find out from our B&B hostess near Leuven that there were TWO basilicas in the area we might want to check out.  And we did!

First of all, as a protestant, I didn't grow up with cathedrals or basilicas...just churches.  My dad was a Baptist preacher.

So, this helps me:

CHURCH:  "A building for public Christian worship."

CATHEDRAL:  "A Christian church building in which a bishop has his official seat (cathedra is Latin for "chair").  A cathedral is usually large and imposing, and many cathedrals are important in the history of architecture."

BASILICA:  "A large and important Roman Catholic church that has been given special ceremonial rights by the Pope." More than 1,580 churches worldwide have been honored as basilicas, 69 of which are in the USA.

Okay then!  These are the two vastly different basilicas we visited while on our wee Belgium trip a couple weeks ago:

1:  Basilica of Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel, in Scherpenheuvel-Zichem, Belgium.

We had first seen it from afar one day and asked our hostess about it,
not knowing it was a basilica.

The next day we made sure we visited it!
It was consecrated in 1627 and raised to the status of a minor basilica in 1922.

As basilicas go (or any churches, for that matter), this is relatively small.
(I know small is a relative word, but take my word for it.)

Basically, you walk into a circular room with the high altar in front of you.
(I'm standing at the entrance in the top-middle image.)

Up above is the dome; down below is the "center point."
"As in heaven above, so on earth below" ran through my mind.

Off to one side was the pulpit....

and in the back/front, above the entrance, was the organ.

But outside that inner, cozy worship sanctum, was a concentric circle of 6 chapels.
You can actually walk from one chapel to the other and look out from each into the sanctuary.
In fact, sometimes I had to stand inside the chapel to get the best images of the sanctuary.
That's how small this space is.

Inside and outside the chapels, you already know what grabbed my attention.

Definitely worth visiting on a gorgeous, sunny day!

2.  Basilica of the Sacred Heart, in Brussels, Belgium (municipality Koekelberg).

The next day was our trip to Brussels for the Christmas market, using the Metro from the Atomium.  Our hostess, knowing how much we liked the first basilica, told us about a quick stop outside of Brussels to visit quite a larger basilica...and so very different from the first.

OMG!  From the Metro we walked through a park with the basilica ever in front of us.

After crossing the busy street in front, we saw it up close and personal,
little knowing until then that the architecture was ART DECO,
inspired by the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in Paris.

The first stone was laid in 1905, after which construction was then halted by the two world wars.
It was consecrated as a basilica in 1935 and was completed in 1970.

It is the largest building in Art Deco style in the world, 292 ft high and 540 ft. long.

I can't begin to describe this religious space.
Huge.  Open.  Light.  Whimsical.  Fun.  Free.  

And just when I thought I had already seen the nave, there was another one.
It's like the worship space never ended...becoming several spaces/places.

See what I mean?
The church can accommodate 3,500 people.

And not just one dome, mind you.

To be honest, I can't imagine anyone sleeping on the job while there!
But stranger things can happen, as we all know.

And so it was that in such a short span of time, we got to see two of Belgium's most unforgettable basilicas.  There are 8 more in Belgium...ready for our next visit, perhaps?

But, wait!  There are 8 in the Netherlands, 2 of which we have seen, so maybe we need to start at home first?

Thursday, December 08, 2016

BELGIUM 2016: The Christmas Markets

As you may know, or not, Astrid and I have an on-going tradition now of taking a few days off following America's Thanksgiving weekend at the end of November.  It helps me get through that one holiday of the year that I miss the most.

This year we decided to make home base as close to Leuven in Belgium as possible, planning on making the Brussels Christmas market our highlight for one day, 30 km away.

So, off we drove to the Atomium outside of Brussels to park for the day,
a no-brainer at €6, plus purchasing an all-day Metro ticket.

But when we got to the Grand Place, or Grote Markt, we had a shock.
No Christmas market there because they were setting up for a concert that night.
The so-called Christmas market was in the side streets.

But first, we wanted to see if Manneken Pis was dressed up for the occasion.
He was, but not for Christmas!  Instead, he was wearing a Scottish outfit
 in honor of St. Andrew's Day, celebrated on November 30, that day.
We're huge fans of Scottish Andy Murray, #1 in men's tennis right now, so this was fun to see.
[Note to self:  one day go visit the City Museum to view Pis' hundreds of outfits.]

We then walked back to the Grand Place for lunch where Astrid got her mussels in Brussels.
She can have them, I always say, while I tried a wonderful chicken and mushroom stew.

While we were there, we spent a few minutes looking at the market square that we love.
Since we were last there, it all seemed spruced up with lots of extra gold touches.

This time I paid more attention to some of the architectural details.
Who thinks these up?!

And because that's what we were there for, we did start checking out the Christmas market,
up and down a few of the side streets.

Can you tell how disappointed we were????
It wasn't anything like what we're used to, by German standards.

So we ended up leaving, thankful for Manneken Pis and the mussels, and promising to check out
if by chance there was another Christmas market in the area for the next day.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

YAY for Astrid's magic Googling fingers that evening because she did indeed find another Christmas market, only 56 km east of Leuven in Hasselt (still in Belgium).

THIS time we were thrilled beyond words, making up for everything we had "lost" the day before in Brussels.

We arrived late afternoon before the crowds descended, which we prefer.

It's nice to walk around without bumping into people, you know!

And true to high standards, this Christmas market had everything,
including an ice castle with sculptures and an indoor ice-skating rink.
To be honest, some attractions remind me of being at an American county fair!

And if you have a Christmas list, you surely have plenty of places to buy 
something special for that special someone.
Me?  I bought a Stuart minion ornament for Astrid.  :)

But to be honest, our eyes were on the Glühwein and....

the braadworsts.
OMG.  We both died and went to heaven!  
(As you know, it doesn't take much.)

By that time, the early evening magic starting lighting up the place.

Isn't it wonderful how Christmas is the Season of Light!

Well, and also of Santa...or Sinterklaas, for the Dutch.
There were enough Santas there to sink a ship.

But this one was set apart, a reminder of the Dutch Sinterklaasdag on 5 December.
That's the day 7 years ago when I arrived in the Netherlands from America
to begin my new life with Astrid.  We were married 2 months later.

You know I'm gonna say it again:
YES, Virginia.  There is a Santa Claus!