Photo of the Day: Sunset over Bruges

The Belgian city of Bruges is famous for its stunning medieval architecture – it’s a fact made all the more apparent by today’s photo, taken by Flickr user clee130. Taken at sunset, the city’s gothic cathedral spires (that’s the Church of Our Lady on the left, and St. Salvator’s Cathedral on the right) and angular roofs are bathed by the warm glow of an ethereal, golden light.

Taken any great photos during your travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Lincoln Cathedral quieter than usual as 176 year old bell gets repaired

Lincoln CathedralGreat Tom, the giant bell at Lincoln Cathedral that has struck the hour every hour since 1835, has stopped ringing.

The clapper has almost shared off, a church official said. The last time the bell was silenced was during the filming of The Da Vinci Code in 2005.

Lincoln Cathedral is one of the great cathedrals of Europe. The original cathedral was commissioned by William the Conqueror and consecrated in 1092. Fires and earthquakes caused a few rebuilds over the years and like so many cathedrals, different parts date to different centuries.

Still, it’s one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in England. The soaring nave and the three tall towers make it a memorable landmark.

Lincoln cathedralOne odd little bit of decoration is the Lincoln Imp. This is said to be one of two imps sent by the devil to cause mischief. They smashed the furniture, tripped the bishop, and caused general mayhem until an angel floated out of a book of hymns. One imp became scared and hid, while the other threw things at the angel. The angel then turned the more aggressive imp to stone while the cowardly imp ran away. An imp is still the symbol of the city of Lincoln.

Smaller bells will continue to ring the quarter hours and church officials hope to have it up by the end of the year.

Imp photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Cathedral photo courtesy Geograph.

Antwerp: Belgium’s historic and modern port

AntwerpI’ve often wondered why Belgium is such a rich country. Its main claims to fame–chocolate, beer, Tintin, and a heroic fight against the Kaiser’s army in World War One–are all noteworthy but hardly the stuff to earn billions. Some background research for this series taught me that Antwerp has a lot to do with Belgium’s wealth.

It’s the second largest port in Europe, and one of the top ten in the world. It has a petrochemical works second only to Houston. The diamond industry is a major factor too. It’s strange, then, that Antwerp isn’t better known as an economic center the way London or Zurich is. It seems the Belgians just quietly get on with it, without making too much fuss.

Legend has it that the city gets its name from the antics of Antigoon, an evil giant who charged a toll on those crossing the River Scheldt. The toll was one hand, which he tossed into the river. One day a youth named Brabo fought the giant, cut off one of his hands, and threw it into the river, thus saving the city for us regular-sized folk. The Dutch name for the city, Antwerpen, means “throw a hand.”

Etymologists say the name actually comes from the old way to say “on the wharf” or “on the warp” (manmade hill), but any story with a giant gets my vote.

Like so many Western European cities, Antwerp can trace its origins to Roman times. It steadily grew until it enjoyed a golden age in the 16th century as a major port during the Age of Exploration. Overseas colonies sent their wealth through Antwerp, and this wealth is reflected in the glorious curches and fine homes built during this period. The city has had its ups and downs over the centuries and is currently enjoying an up.

Walking around Antwerp’s historic center you’ll see architecture reminiscent of Amsterdam without the canals. The Gothic spire of the Cathedral of Our Lady acts as a landmark. It was consecrated in 1521, when Antwerp was really getting going, and is adorned with some of the finest art of the Low Countries. Rubens has several works here, including his Descent from the Cross, included in the gallery in this article. As I was admiring it yesterday, two British boys came up beside me. The older one said in his best public school accent, “It’s quite good”, to which his younger brother replied “Not for Jesus.”

The Virgin Mary is important to the people of Antwerp and you can see statues of her on many streetcorners, looking down on the passersby.

%Gallery-137603%A lesser-visited but equally interesting church is the 17th century Saint Carolus Borromeus. There’s some fine art and an interesting relic. Just to the left as you enter, look up and you’ll see a headless statue of a boy holding a little silver sphere. Through the glass of the sphere you can see a skull. This is said to be the skull of Justus, a Roman boy whose family converted pagans to Christianity. Roman soldiers captured him and demanded to know where his family was. He refused to say and they cut off his head. Visiting this relic is said to cure headache and nerve pain.

Antwerp is a combination of winding little streets, a few broad avenues, and some stately squares. Many of these squares are lined with bars where you can sample some fine Belgian beer. The best bars have an immense variety to choose from, like Kulminator, which had literally hundreds of varieties on offer. A friend of mine recommended this place, saying, “They sell a beer bottled in 1984, consistancy of marmite. I didn’t remember anything for the next six hours.” I didn’t drink that one!

The city center is very walkable, and filled with museums, galleries, and palaces. I’ll be visiting some of them later in the series, but I did want to say that if you’re going to see just one museum, make it the Mas. This ultramodern high-rise along an old dock contains the collections of four previous museums. There’s everything here from video installation pieces to the Dutch Masters, all mingled together to give you a visual overload. It stays open until midnight (!) so it’s a great place to walk off some calories after a dinner of rich Flemish cuisine.

I’m not much of a shopper, but many travelers say Antwerp is great for fashion and jewelry, especially diamonds. I also noticed a large number of well-stocked bookstores. The Flemish region of Belgium is known for having a lively literary scene. If anyone out there can suggest some good Flemish authors who have been translated into English or Spanish, I’d like to hear about them.

The people of Antwerp are proud of their city, as I discovered on my first night as I was puzzling over my map trying to find my way back to the hotel. A guy came up and asked where I was going and pointed the way. A minute later he came running up to me to apologize. He’d sent me the wrong way. These medieval streets can even confound the locals! After he pointed out the correct route I thanked him and said, “You have a beautiul city.”

“We have the only beautiful city. You know what we say of the rest of the world?”

“What?” I asked.

“It’s the suburbs of Antwerp.”

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Visiting a German bunker from World War Two!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

David’s Discoveries: A tale of two labyrinths: Chartres

Outdoors in a panoramic park behind the famous cathedral of Chartres a teenage girl skipped along the concentric pathways of a grassy labyrinth. Other kids shouted and kicked a soccer ball. Young lovers simultaneously pecked at each other and the touchpads of their handheld devices, observed by curious onlookers.

Most such onlookers in Chartres are day-trippers from nearby Paris: The capital is an hour’s ride east on a commuter train.

A hundred yards away from the sunny, lively grass labyrinth, silence reigned inside the looming stone cathedral of Chartres. The cool, echoing nave was lit by glowing stained-glass windows and held aloft by flying buttresses. An unusual procession was underway. Spiritual seekers shuffled, slid or crawled along the 850-foot-long, serpentine stone pathway marked out on the floor some 800 years ago. They were following the convolutions of the “real” labyrinth, the one that has made Chartres a pilgrimage site for labyrinth-walkers worldwide.

Chartres is the Queen of European cathedrals, with acres of stained glass. It’s among the world’s most astonishing ecclesiastical edifices in beauty and historical value. The cathedral also has one of the tallest naves and spires anywhere and the most original, wheel-like buttresses too. Atop a gentle rise overlooking the Eure River, the site where central Chartres spreads is magical: Ancient Druids, the priests of the Gauls, met where the cathedral now stands. Or so claimed Julius Caesar.Many of Chartres’ labyrinth-walkers are not Catholic and do not come to see the cathedral’s relics or participate in a mass. They’re nondenominational, New Age questers. They’re freethinkers and oddballs. What they’re seeking is an open question: Each has an individual set of unanswered queries. Though some come on organized labyrinth-walking tours, most arrive on their own, from places that run the spectrum from Amazonia to Zululand.

What unites the labyrinth-walkers of Chartres, distinguishing them from other visitors and the happy kids in the grass labyrinth, is simple enough: They believe or feel or sense there are questions to be asked. Big questions. The “what’s it all about, Alfie” questions: What are we humans doing here, what am I doing with my life, does God or something with a divine nature exist, and is she watching?

Unsurprisingly, of the 2 million or so visitors who tramp through the cathedral each year, only a fraction of them walk the labyrinth. It’s accessible – meaning the chairs are removed from the floor space the labyrinth occupies – on Fridays only, from April to October. Those who arrive on the wrong day or in the wrong season head outside to the grass labyrinth, where they mix with the locals.

Mixing with the locals in Chartres may not be such a bad thing. The historic center of town has 40,000 inhabitants. On average fewer than one in ten is an active Catholic if national statistics are to be trusted (the specific numbers for Chartres itself aren’t available). But that doesn’t stop locals from loving their cathedral or seeking answers in original ways.

Follow them on a Wednesday or Saturday to Place Billard, 150 yards south of the cathedral, and they’ll show you their gorgeous fruit and vegetable market, filled with the bounty of Nature or God or the serendipitous result of Big Bangs.

Walk along the scenic banks of the curving Eure River and you’ll see the locals rowing, feeding tame ducks, or sitting out at appealing cafés and restaurants, enjoying something. The mystery of life? The wise ones among them might even tell you – if you know to ask – that the labyrinths of Chartres, like those of Paris, New York, Rio, Rotterdam and Rome, are infinite in number and take on many forms. They can be grass. They can be stone. They can be asphalt or beaten earth or entirely virtual, in the mind.

Having walked both labyrinths at Chartres many times, not to mention the labyrinthine streets or hiking trails of countless cities and forests, from San Francisco to the Polar Circle, I know which of these two very pleasant, very tame mazes I prefer. Luckily they’re not mutually exclusive, and if you can’t fly to Chartres and join the labyrinth-walkers, with a little effort you can invent your very own labyrinth in the comfort of your home.

Author and guide David Downie’s latest books are the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” and “Quiet Corners of Rome.” His websites are, and, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

[Flickr image via Adrienne Serra]

London’s South Bank, walking through old and new

South Bank
London is a wonderful, vibrant city. Like all big cities, however, it can be a bit overwhelming. A good way to get a bit of room and fresh(er) air is to walk along the Thames Path. This path extends 184 miles from the river’s source in the Cotswolds almost to the sea, and offers some much-needed open space as it passes through the heart of London.

For visitors to the capital, the most interesting stretch is less than a mile long, between the Tate Modern and Borough Market on London’s South Bank. On this easy stroll you’ll pass a medieval palace, tourist traps, London’s best farmer’s market, and much more.

First stop is the Tate Modern, formerly Bankside Power Station. This massive building houses a huge collection of modern and contemporary art. It stands on the south end of the Millennium Bridge, a cool-looking span of metal arching over the Thames. St. Paul’s Cathedral, a 17th century landmark that recently finished a decade-long restoration, stands at the north end of the bridge. This juxtaposition of old and new is a constant theme in London, especially along this stretch of the river.

Walking east along the Thames Path, the next stop is Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. This meticulous reconstruction of the original, minus the rats and plague, has an excellent cast of actors who perform The Bard’s plays as well as others from his time. The theatre is a semicircle facing the stage. Prices vary depending on the quality of the view, but all prices are reasonable. You can even stand in “the pit” for the peasant’s price of only £5 ($8)!

%Gallery-128678%Continuing east, you enter a narrow lane called Clink Street. This is an old part of the city. The original Globe stood not far from here, and the famous Clink Prison was on this road. Being put in the Clink was often a death sentence, what with the filthy conditions, bad food, and occasional visit by the torturer. You can learn all about it at The Clink Prison Museum, a delightfully cheesy tourist trap that does for medieval history what South of the Border does to Mexico. It’s tacky, it’s superficial, it’s embarrassingly stupid, but it’s all so ridiculous you can’t help but be entertained. I mean, who wouldn’t want to pose for a picture with your head on a chopping block while your kid threatens you with a foam axe?

Next comes the remains of Winchester Palace, pictured above, owned by the Bishops of Winchester. Built in the 12th century, most of it has been lost over the years but one wall with a magnificent rose window remains. This bit survived because it was incorporated into the wall of a warehouse for many years. London has a way of building on itself.

More touristy goodness comes a few steps further on at the Golden Hinde, a full-scale replica of the galleon Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world in 1577-80. More than just a floating museum, the boat is fully seaworthy and has circumnavigated the globe just like its predecessor. There are often school groups and birthday parties taking over the ship so it’s best to check ahead before showing up.

Within sight of the Golden Hinde is Southwark Cathedral. The oldest parts date to 1206 but it underwent a major remodeling in 1836. Part of the exterior are made with flint nodules, their peculiar color giving churches built with them the nickname “puddingstone churches”. The interior is inspired by the French Gothic with an elegant altar screen dedicated in 1520. There are numerous interesting bits here, including a monument to Shakespeare, a chapel commissioned by John Harvard, and a display of some archaeological finds that suggest this was once the site of a Roman temple.

Last stop is Borough Market, a massive farmer’s market that opens every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Londoners flock here to buy all sorts of fresh food as well as luxury imports. There are plenty of stalls that prepare meals you can eat on the go, and wandering through here is a great chance to people watch.

So if walking through museums has made you weary, get out in the sunshine (or cold drizzle) and walk along the Thames Path!