Alex and Ron's Travels

In 2012 I retired again and we are traveling in Europe. In 2009 Ron and I retired and we volunteered at Quaker Meeting House in Wellington, New Zealand for a year.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Den Haag, Netherlands

Dutch Park-n-Ride
On April 23 we flew from Lisbon to the Netherlands by way of Frankfurt airport.  We took a taxi to Leiden where we met our Wimdu host who drove us on to our apartment in The Hague.  This turned out to be luxuriously spacious and bright.  The kitchen even included an electric orange juicer.  The street was quiet, overlooking a canal, but just a couple of blocks away were some busy streets full of restaurants and markets.  The city center was an easy walk.  There are lots of trams and buses to take one around the city.  Most of The Hague is 4 to 5 story buildings with some high rise areas.  There are canals everywhere.  The most dangerous thing we found about walking around town was all the bicycles - also roller skaters, motorized wheelchairs, scooters, etc.  They come at you from any direction, because they don’t seem to feel they have to obey road rules.  Also the occasional uneven brick in the sidewalk would try and trip me up.  But we managed to avoid injury.

Although Amsterdam is the capital, The Hague is actually where parliament meets and where most of the government buildings are, plus a few royal palaces.  The oldest government building in town is Ridderzaal (the Hall of Knights) built in the 13th  Century by the Count of Holland.  Now it is surrounded by a growing group of buildings known as the Binnenhof, which house parliament and other government offices.  On the outside of the Binnenhof there is a large pond called the Hofvijver.  We would often find ourselves walking down there or through the courtyard of the Binnenhof.  There are a number of plazas there (and other places around town) where the Dutch love to have coffee or a drink in the open air, if at all possible.

Next to the Binnenhof is the Hague’s most famous museum, the Mauritshaus.  Unfortunately, it is undergoing renovations and so it is closed.  Some of the paintings are on tour to other countries, but many are in other museums.  We saw 150 at the Gemeentemuseum, including Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen, and many other wonderful paintings.  In the main collection we enjoyed an exhibit of paintings by Gustave Caillebot, along with photos similar to many of his Parisian scenes. 

The main event during our stay was the retirement of Queen Beatrix (by abdication) and the investiture of her son Willem-Alexander as king.  This occurred on Queen’s Day, which is always a National Holiday.  Since this was a Tuesday, everyone mostly took a long weekend, and lots of things were closed.  Shops and people were decorated in orange.  There were concert stages set up at 6-7 locations around the city with music the night before.  We waked around to two.   All the festivities took place in Amsterdam, and we watched on TV.  The ceremony was actually a session of Parliament, which installed Willem-Alexander as King.  He then swore to uphold the constitution and watch over the country and gave a speech.  Then every member of Parliament stood up and swore allegiance to the new King.  About half invoked God, and the other half didn’t.  I read that 16 members refused to swear, but I couldn’t tell the difference.  There were many royal guests, including a lot of crown princes who probably wish their parents would be as sensible as Beatrix.
Escher Museum

Another theme for our visit was that The Hague is celebrating Constantijn and Christiaan Huygens in 2013, although it doesn’t seem to be an anniversary year for either. Constantijn was secretary to 2 Princes of Orange in the 17th century, and also a poet, musician, and art collector.  His son Christiaan was a scientist who studied light as a wave and discovered Saturn’s moon Titan.  Another son, Constantijn II, was also a diplomat and secretary to the William of Orange who became King of England in 1688 along with Mary Stuart as Queen.  The Grote Kerk, near where we were staying, had a big exhibit about them, and a number of smaller museums also particularly featured Constantijn I because of his influence with art collecting.  I particularly enjoyed the Bredius museum and the Prince William V Gallery because they were small collections, so it was easy to concentrate on the particular pictures. 
Escher Museum staircase

Another fun museum was the Escher Gallery, which is in a small palace that Queen Wilhelmina (the great-grandmother of the current king) used to use.  Besides the Escher prints to look at, there were also descriptions of how each room had been used and how it was furnished.  It was very interesting to see the development of Escher’s work.   He started off more conventional with landscapes and natural objects, although he always liked mirrors, odd perspectives, and a geometric design.  His tessellations and other familiar works are still fascinating, and it was just a small enough exhibition not to get tired or overwhelmed by repetition.
Keukenhof tulips

We took three outings away from town.  One day while Ron was still doing research, I went to the Keukenhof Gardens by train to Leiden and then bus, about an hour’s travel.  The Keukenhof claims to be the world’s largest spring bulb garden.  It is quite impressive.  I was there on a cool but sunny day with lots of other people, which actually was fun and festive.  It was pretty much mid-season, so there were not many areas where the flowers had faded, nor many where the buds had not yet opened. 
Flower fields
There were yellow, white, purple, red, pink, orange, blue, and striped tulips, hyacinths and daffodils in all kinds of bedding arrangements. Around the periphery of the garden, and along the train and bus routes, there were also flower fields – an acre of yellow daffodils, then one of purple hyacinths, and smaller plots too.  It was definitely an archetypical picture of Holland, although I have actually been surprised at how little flower plantings there are in the city.
Ridderzaal Madurodam
Madurodam farm

A second expedition was to the miniature town of Madurodam, which I remember visiting when six years old.  It is still almost as magical.  It is about an acre of scale model (1:25, I believe) of iconic Dutch buildings from around the country, such as royal palaces, churches, the Rijksmuseum, the shipping yards of Rotterdam, typical farmhouses and windmills, etc.  So we got to see models of many buildings we will not see in person on this trip, and we got some ideas of places we would like to see.  One of the fun parts is that it is like being in a huge model train set, because many sections do have trains or other moving parts.  The effect is enhanced by their use of bonsai trees. 
Madurodam panorama
You cannot walk through most of the models – they are in small groups that you walk around.  Most of the groupings are a mix of buildings from different towns.  Only occasionally is a section all from Amsterdam, say.

Delft Square & New Kerk
Our final excursion was to Delft, a short train ride, and actually still considered part of den Haag’s city limits.  It is a charming town with canals (surprise) and small town houses and a lovely large square in the town center.  Besides being a ceramics center, it is known as the home of Vermeer, and the old Artist’s Guild Hall has been converted into a Vermeer Center.  It does not actually have any Vermeer originals, but has reproductions of his 36 known paintings with interesting information about how and where they were painted, and the people in them, and some of the influences on his style.  There was also a guide book so we could walk around town to places where he had lived.  The other sights in town are the New Kerk and Town Hall on either end of the town square, and the Old Kerk a few blocks away.  This is near the Prinsenhof (Prince’s home), a convent which housed William the Silent of Orange, who led the rebellion against Spanish rule and was assassinated in that very house in 1584 by someone who hoped to be rewarded by Spain for the deed.  This was the first murder by gun of a head of state.  The bullet holes are still in the wall. 
Delft house

We enjoyed our stay in The Hague; it was relaxed; we did not feel like we had to rush to see everything.  Ron was able to do some research on St. Eustatius in the national archives.  On May 5 we headed to Amsterdam by train.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Outside Lisbon - Coimbra and Tomar


After Leiria, we traveled by bus to Coimbra, which has the oldest University in Portugal, and one of the oldest in Europe, established in 1290.  The town is situated on the Mondego River, which is quite wide and pretty, and has pleasant parks and walkways on either side.  Our hotel was right across the street from the river.  We found many pleasant restaurants there for lunch or dinner. 
University plaza

Rising up above the river is a high hill with the ancient University at the top.  (The university has spread out from there over the centuries.)  The University itself has a large courtyard surrounded by the oldest buildings.  One end of the courtyard is on the bluff with a great view of the Mondego River valley.

Church of Santa Cruz
Although you have to climb to get to the university, from the river it is possible to stay on a reasonable flat street to get to the heart of the old town, which is the Church of Santa Cruz, founded in 1131, where the first two kings of Portugal are buried.  However, the original Gothic is totally overlaid with Manueline exuberance and later tile decorations. 
Tomb of Afonso Henriques

This contrasts remarkably with the Old Cathedral (Sé Velha), a bulky Romanesque hulk halfway up the hill, begun in 1162.  This is actually a very impressive church in its solidity and plainness.  It only has a few high up windows, so it was reminiscent of a lot of early churches we saw in Spain.

Old Cathedral
Coimbra is also home to its own version of fado, which we were able to hear in an afternoon concert.  This fado is all romantic ballads sung by students to their lady loves.  There is still an ongoing tradition of singing on the street below your girlfriend’s window.  Although we couldn’t understand the words, which probably are more important in this form, we could tell the difference from the Lisbon fado, which has a more working or even under class tone.
Saint Queen Isabel

Across the river, there are also a number of interesting sights.  The Convent of Santa Clara houses the silver tomb of the Saint Queen of Portugal, Doña Isabel of Aragon, who died in 1336.  This is in the new convent.

Cloister of new Santa Clara
The old convent, built by Queen Isabel, is a recently restored ruin on the banks of the river.  This location proved to be prone to frequent flooding, and the entire first floor was eventually abandoned, and a second floor built in the church.  Eventually, the nuns moved up hill to the new convent, and the old one remained submerged until recently drained and excavated and a new visitors’ center created.  The ruins of the church and cloister were surprisingly well preserved under the mud, and the visitors’ center does a good job of describing the monastic life of the order of Saint Claire.

Ruins of old Santa Clara
We ate lunch at a villa turned hotel nearby, which also has a connection to Inȇs de Castro.  This was one of their hideaways, and it was here that she was captured by her assassins, though she was actually killed nearby in Coimbra.

Portugal dos Pequinitos
Finally, one of the must see sights in Coimbra is Portugal dos Pequenitos, founded in 1940, with scale models of Portuguese houses and monuments, and exhibits about the many Portuguese colonies.  It was built in the 1940s.  The buildings are big enough to walk into, especially if you are a child.  The monuments are rather odd as they are pastiches of buildings – a Manueline window or doorframe, a castle tower or two.  Signs at each building identify the half dozen different elements. 
Portugal dos Pequinitos
I particularly wanted to see this park, as I hope to go to Madurodam in Holland, which is a miniature town that I vividly remember from a trip to Europe when I was 6 years old.  The scale of the buildings at Pequenitos is much bigger, and I think it must be fun to be inside them if you are six.
Conimbriga rain garden
Outside of Coimbra, about a half hour bus trip, is the ancient Roman city of Conimbriga, situated on a hill overlooking a steep ravine.  It is a remarkably well preserved Roman site because it was not built over and continuously occupied like so many other places.  There were many large villas with lovely mosaics.  Many of the courtyards had elaborate water gardens, which I have not seen before.  There is a large public bath, and a large forum.  I have never been to Pompeii, but this felt almost as exciting, as it is possible to get a real sense of the Roman town.
Wall through house
One of the striking things about the town is that when it came under attack by the Visigoths in the 6th century,  it threw up a big wall, cutting though a number of even fairly large villas, using stones from everything that was outside the wall.  Eventually the wall did not prevent them from being overrun.
Wall and road

Finally, our last stop was the town of Tomar, also situated on a pretty little river, the Nabão.  Indeed, our hotel was a pleasant old inn on an island in the river.  Most of the island is a public park, and our room had a large balcony overlooking the park, with a large trellis of fragrant wisteria framing the view. 
View from our Tomar balcony
It was an easy and pleasant walk to the town square where there is a 16th century church with Manueline doorway and well done religious painting by the famous-in-Portugal painter Gregorio Lopes.
Convent of Christ above Tomar

Across the river on a hill is the main sight of Tomar, the Convent of Christ.  This was originally the center for the Knights Templar of Portugal, an order of crusaders.  After the crusades were over, kings and pope decided the Knights had gotten too powerful, so that they were disbanded in 1314.  In Portugal, King Dinis reconstituted them as the Order of Christ, with himself as Grand Master. 
Manueline doorway
They were much involved with the Portuguese discoveries and expansion overseas, and so kings and princes, who continued to head the organization, continued to build and expand the Convent.  It is by the far the biggest complex we have been in, with seven cloisters.  The core of the convent is the original Chapel, built in the 12th century, a sixteen sided church with a central alter inside an arched octagon.  Later a 2 story nave was attached, with the chapel becoming the apse of the church.  There are also the usual (by now) extravagantly decorated doorways and windows added by King Manuel. 
Of interest was the huge dormitory, a part of monasteries that we were rarely able to see elsewhere.  This dormitory was in the shape of a large T.  The hallway seemed as wide as a road, and the cells were as big (or bigger) than our tiny apartment in Lisbon.  There was a choir warming up for a concert in one cloister, which gave a nice aural element to our tour.

The other main sight in Tomar is the oldest preserved synagogue in Portugal.  It is an aesthetically pleasing square room with four pillars in the center supporting Gothic arches.  The pillars are said to represent the 4 matriarchs of Judaism, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel, which is something that I had never heard before.  The museum included displays explaining Judaism, and a number of old gravestones from around the country.  The volunteer who showed us around was very enthusiastic, but also wished that much more archeology and preservation work could get done.  For instance, in an adjoining room there is evidence of the mikvah, which needs more excavation.  We enjoyed talking with him about the similar, less well preserved synagogue in St. Eustatius.

On April 22 we returned to Lisbon by train with enough time to enjoy relaxing at the Praça Commercio and eating a delicious vegetarian dinner.  On April 23 we flew out to new adventures in Holland.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Outside Lisbon - Leiria

Leiria - River Lis and castle
On April 13 we took the train north from Lisbon to the town of Leiria, where we stayed four days.  The river Lis runs through the town and our hotel was on the bank of the river with a great view of the town’s landmark castle on the hill above.  The town has created a nice park and walkway along the river on both sides, which was very pleasant to stroll along.  There is also a large park where the main road crosses the river, and then a smaller pedestrian square with lots of restaurants and cafes.   Much of the town under the castle's bluff is quite old with narrow streets, but there were also wider thoroughfares and modern stores.  And of course, a large modern town (about 50,000) spreads out from the medieval core, which we only saw entering and leaving. 
Castle porch
With help from the guidebook, we found a contemporary restaurant which had a choice of 4 vegetarian entrees, so we ate there twice.  I have also found that most Portuguese restaurants have one or more vegetable soups that make a pretty good meal.

We walked up to the castle which is now a partially reconstructed ruin.  It was a Moorish stronghold (and perhaps Roman before that) until reconquered in 1135 by Afonso Henriques, who became the first Christian King of Portugal.  The walls and the castle keep date from around this time or the next century.  In the late 15th century King João I built a small palace within the walls and restored the church. The palace has a wonderful porch gallery overlooking the city, and a couple of other restored rooms of comfortable proportion.  The church is an elegant ruin, and the keep and battlements at the top of the hill are impressive. 
At dinner that evening, on one of the squares, we got to observe one of those quaint native festivals you read about.  This was a parade to drum up support for the local soccer team playing that evening.  First honking cars drove around and then people marched through the various squares wearing their soccer scarves, drinking, waving banners, singing songs, and blowing horns and whistles.
Old Leiria

Leiria also has a recently built Museum of the Moving Image.  It had everything from flip books and stereoscopes to early movie cameras, with a number of good interactive models.  We most enjoyed a photo exhibit of old Leiria from the turn of the last century to mid-20th century. 
Stairway to Church
Another hill above the river is dominated by a church, the Sanctuary of our Lady of the Conception, with an impressive staircase leading straight up the hill, so we had the energy to climb up there also and check out that view.  The church itself was not open.
Batalha Monastery

Leiria was our base for day trips to two World Heritage Sites.  The first was to Batalha Monastery, built to thank the Virgin Mary for her help in bringing victory at the nearby battle of Aljubarrota in 1385.  The church started off as classic Gothic with English Perpendicular influences, but later Manueline decorations were added to doors and cloisters.
Church nave
It was good to see it right after being at the Jerónimos cloisters in Belem.  The mix of styles was quite enjoyable.  There is a Founders Chapel with tombs of many kings, starting with Joao I and his wife Philippa of Lancaster from the early 15th century.  They have a joint tomb and their effigies are holding hands.  There is a very nice cloister.  Originally plain Gothic, typically elaborate decorative Manueline stone tracery was added to the arches.  In fact, this is the first building in which this work appears, and the architect then went on to build the Jeronimos Monastery.
The decoration really takes off in the doorway carvings of what are called the Imperfect (or Unfinished) Chapels.  Some more kings are buried here in chapels around a central octagonal courtyard, but they ran out of funds for completing the vault, so the courtyard is open to the elements.  King Duarte and Queen Eleanor of Aragon have a joint tomb there where they are also depicted holding hands.  Duarte (Edward in English) was the son of Joao and Philippa mentioned earlier.

Unfinished Chapel

King Duarte and Queen Eleanor

King Joao and Queen Philippa

Alcobaca Monastery
 The second day trip was to the Alcobaça Monastery.
Alcobaca Church nave
Although the name sounds Moorish, it is because it is built where the Alco and Baça rivers meet.  This is another huge tall Gothic church, but it is older than Batalha, built starting 1178.  The big draw for this church are the tombs of King Pedro I and his love Inȇs de Castro, a lady-in-waiting to his wife.  After the wife died, he lived in secret with Inȇs, and they had several children.  Later he claimed that they were secretly married.
King Pedro
Pedro’s father Afonso IV ordered Inȇs assassination because he feared the influence of her Spanish family.  Later, when Pedro became King, he declared Inȇs to be his Queen.  The tombs are placed in the two transepts of the church, so that when they raise up on the Day of Judgment, the first thing they see will be each other.
Ines de Castro
Their statues on their tombs depict themselves supported by angels ready to assist them to sit up.  It led me to wonder how their actual bodies are going to be able to move the heavy stone lids aside on that Day.  I guess angels will help with that too.  The tombs have wonderfully elaborate bas-relief carvings on all sides. 

Detail Pedro's tomb
Detail Ines 's tomb

Hall of Kings
Adjoining the church is the Kings Hall with ceramic statues of Portuguese kings on pedestals above tile work depicting the founding of the Monastery.  Apparently the monks here were renowned for their ability to make life size statues out of clay.  All the monastic rooms are well preserved and full of Gothic arches.
The kitchen is entirely lined with tile, including the ceiling, and has another one of those huge chimneys.  Water from the rivers were diverted into the kitchen (and other parts) for cooking and cleaning.  There was even a large basin to capture any fish that might flow through.  The refectory had a special narrow side door that was sometimes used to test monks thought to be becoming too corpulent.
Dining room door
If they couldn’t pass through the door, they couldn’t have supper!

Cloister detail
I will post soon about the last two towns in Portugal!