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.
Antwerp

%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.

The five most beautiful colleges of Oxford

Oxford
Oxford is the most beautiful city in England and makes a great day trip from London. What makes Oxford unique is its famous university with more than two dozen colleges. While each has its own distinct character, they tend to all be similarly laid out with one or more quads and a chapel. Here are five of the best.

Magdalen College
Founded in 1456, this college’s soaring Gothic tower on High Street is one of the most recognizable features of the city’s skyline. When this was the Royalist capital during the English Civil War, lookouts kept watch from the top for Cromwell’s troops and even kept a supply of rocks up there to drop on them! Today it’s more peaceful and every May Day morning a choir sings from the top in one of Oxford’s most popular traditions. Behind the tower is a large cloister surrounded by a covered arcade with Gothic windows. Passing beyond this you come to a bridge over a stream and a pleasant walk alongside a meadow where deer nibble at wildflowers or laze under the shade of trees in summer.

New College
Despite the name, New College is one of the university’s oldest, having been founded in 1386. Nobody knows how it got its name, although the greater mystery is why it kept it. Like Magdalen College, there’s a large cloister and two attractive quads. The gardens are especially interesting because one of the walls is actually the medieval city wall, built in the twelfth century. The garden, with its lush flowerbeds, medieval wall, and carefully tended lawn, is one of Oxford’s best.

%Gallery-131852%Keble College
Founded in 1868, Keble College departs from the Gothic style of most other colleges and is ornately Victorian with its bright red brick and ornate facades. The chapel looks almost Byzantine with its glowing gold mosaics. This makes for a real contrast from the other colleges and after you’ve seen two or three, come here to see something different. Keble College is overlooked by the majority of tourists so you’ll find it less crowded and more tranquil.

Merton College
This college is one of the university’s oldest, being founded in 1274. It’s also one of the best preserved and much of what you see dates back to the Middle Ages. At the front gate you walk under a 15th century carving of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and enter a quad of similar date with walls covered in ivy. The chapel here is my personal favorite, with an ornate rose window, lots of original medieval stained glass, and an altar painting attributed to Tintoretto. Check out the tombs of various Oxford scholars, including one from 1525 with a globe attached showing the world as it was then known. Two kings lived at Merton College. Charles I made it his home after he got kicked out of London during the English Civil War. Charles II lived here for a time to escape the Plague. Located on a quiet back street, it’s still a peaceful refuge today and not nearly as visited as Magdalen, Christ Church, or New Colleges.

Christ Church College
Founded by Cardinal Wolsey at the bidding of Henry VIII in 1532, Christ Church is famous for Old Tom, a tall tower that like the Great Tower at Magdalen College adds a special touch to the city’s skyline. The front quad has a statue of Mercury in the middle of a waterlily pond. Be sure to see the cathedral with its grand stained glass windows and high vaulted Gothic ceiling. From the gardens you can walk into Christ Church Meadow, a broad expanse of open greenery leading to the River Isis, the local name for the Thames. On a sunny day you shouldn’t miss it!

Madrid day trip: Romanesque churches and a Gothic cathedral in Segovia

Segovia, Madrid day tripSegovia is an easy day trip from Madrid and has plenty of medieval and Renaissance buildings to capture the imagination. Yesterday I talked about the Alcázar, the city’s castle, and today I’m looking at Segovia’s many churches.

Most of the churches are Romanesque in style, like Iglesia de la Veracruz, which was actually built outside the city walls in 1208. The signage says this church was owned by the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, but local legend says it’s a Templar church. Who knows? The round floor plan imitates the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, something common in Templar churches, so the legend may be correct. Then again, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem would want to imitate that church too. Somebody call Dan Brown.

Romanesque architecture was hugely popular in Spain and many other parts of Europe from the 8th to the 12th centuries. In Spain it took the form of square towers punctured by arches like this one, and arched doorways filled with carvings of angels, devils, saints, and even signs of the zodiac.

The circular floor plan of Iglesia de la Veracruz is unusual. Most Romanesque churches had a rectangular nave like we’re familiar with in later churches. This gives plenty of room for stained glass windows, religious paintings, and other decoration. Many of Segovia’s churches are like art galleries!

%Gallery-128543%One actually is. San Juan de los Caballeros, which was founded by the Visigoths in the 5th century and later turned into a Romanesque church, became in the 20th century the workshop of the famous ceramicist Daniel Zuloaga. A museum highlights his work and there are interesting elements to the church itself, like rare remnants of early frescoes and well-preserved carvings on the facade.

Another fine church is Iglesia de San Martín, seen best from the Plazuela de San Martín. It dates to the 12th century and has a distinctive peaked tower visible from many parts of the city–a good landmark when you get lost in the maze of medieval streets! There’s a wonderful portico where every column capital is carved with a different scene. Weather has given the figures a kind of melted look, but you can still figure out what’s going on if you’ve read your Bible.

Next to the Plaza Mayor is the cathedral. Unlike most churches in Segovia, this one is in the later Gothic style. In fact, it may be the youngest Gothic church in the world, being started in 1525 and consecrated in 1768. It’s a bit chunkier than the soaring Gothic churches of France and Germany and so isn’t my favorite example of the style, but there are some nice touches like the main tower that turns golden at dusk and dawn, the intricate finials (those spiky things) at each corner and turret, and the many gargoyles and coats of arms adorning the exterior walls.

Most churches are free, but the cathedral charges a small fee. The churches are generally open all day except during masses. The times for those are posted on or near the front door.