“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need”

Said Marcus Tullius Cicero in a letter to his friend Terentius Varro, expressing the need to nurture body and mind. Such an old quote yet so contemporary in this digital age where more and more people would love to go back to basics and adopt a simple lifestyle. Growing your own food in your garden and reading books to fill your days and feed your mind. It cannot get more simpler than that. I’m not going to change my indoor job for outdoor garden work immediately though. I love to read a book but I’m fine just shopping for my food rather than growing it. And I cannot do without my iPhone.

Beloved Berlin

I travelled to Berlin early November. It has been on my must-visit list for a while, its decisive history being one of the appealing aspects of the city. Next to that I really wanted to check why everyone is so excited about Berlin, calling it Europe’s hippest and most trendy place to hang out. However much I realize ‘hip’ is ultimately undefinable, I really wanted to go and see for myself.

I travelled by car as all cheap plane tickets were gone by the time I finally booked a hotel. Despite the heavy construction work the trip was not too bad, I took the fast lane on the A2 motorway which took me right into the city center. My hotel was located in Friedrichstrasse, Berlin Mitte, the heart of the capital and a very lively neighbourhood with several places to eat and drink. It was pretty close to the train station and the old railway arches have been filled up with many restaurants. I had a nice meal in restaurant Nolle, I ordered a very reasonably priced house dish: schnitzel, sausage and meatballs. This is Germany after all.

Late at night, I walked up to the Brandenburg Gate for the first time, it would not be the last time. Somehow I felt drawn to this monument, as if I forced myself to think and rethink the value of freedom and peace. Its surrounding Pariser Platz is a quiet cobblestoned pedestrian zone, they banned traffic from the square which allows people to come together and reminisce about the time when thousands celebrated the fall of the Berlin wall back in November 1989. A lot of embassies, like the American and French, are located  nearby, as if to make every visitor recognize their share of peacemaking at the time. Close to the Brandenburg Gate is the Reichstag, seat of the German parliament, and the Holocaust Monument, a memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe. Both are equally impressive be it for different reasons.

The next day started grey and cloudy. I walked the entire 3,3km long Friedrichstrasse up to Checkpoint Charlie, an important former crossing point between East and West Berlin but actually looking rather fake. The outdoor photo gallery with many pictures and stories about daring escapes during the Cold War was of much more value to me than the replica of the border house with guards posing for pictures with tourists. I decided to walk around the Eastern part of Berlin, passed the red-brick Berlin City hall and headed all the way up to Alexander Platz.  In the end, walking is essentially what you do when city tripping, right? Alexander Platz did not make too much of an impression on me. It is Berlin’s largest public square featuring mostly shops and a TV tower which is a great orientation point and undoubtedly provides most splendid but greatly overpriced views over the city.

Walking through the Museum island and along the magnificent Unter den linden Boulevard left me utterly amazed. Great buildings and world-renowned museums line up alongside each other. Too bad the weather was dark and gloomy and renovation as well as construction work was going on all over the place. This really blurred the pretty view and definitely prevents every tourist from taking nice pictures. This by the way applies to the whole of Berlin, I have never seen so many cranes per square km anywhere else. Late afternoon I hung out in the area of the Potsdammer Platz, and had a beer in the Sony Centre, masterpiece of innovative architecture and modern technology.

To finish the long day, I signed up for a visit of the Reichstag roof terrace and glass Dom which gives fascinating views of the city and the Brandenburg Gate in particular. It also provides insight in the Bundestag plenary chamber featuring the purple seats and the large eagle as symbol of the Federal German republic.

After a good night’s sleep and a very rich breakfast I decided to explore the outskirts of the city by public transport instead of by foot. My feet were killing me actually. Tempelhof in the south is interesting, for the mere fact that this vast piece of land so far has not been commercially developed. Instead people in Berlin come together here for hanging out. Must be fun in summer, not so much in winter. I took the metro line and stopped at Warschauer Strasse to see the remainder of the wall at East side Gallery, which does give you a good impression of what it looked and felt like at the time. Walking around Friedrichshain, I tried very hard to feel the attraction. The many restaurants and abundance of street art gives the area a bohemian atmosphere. I can imagine, in summertime, this is a place you would want to spend your long evenings. In wintertime though this is a raw and somewhat gloomy area, even threatening at some point. Freedom is taken to the outer limit, drinking happens out in the open, on the street. I had a burger in Burgeramt, by the amount of people inside, it must have been the best burger in town although I suspect at least some people primarily want to be seen eating there.

Berlin left me with mixed feelings. It is a magnificent city, full of history you cannot ignore. Buildings and monuments are screaming for attention. You have seen many sites in documentaries on TV, about Hitler or the war. Walking passed these icons of history so many decades later makes you feel quite overwhelmed. But Berlin definitely wants to outgrow its history and be a contemporary, arty hotspot for next generations who will be less interested in its past. I can see the potential but I will need to come back when all work in progress has finished and I have to change the season so I can stroll the many parks and squares and enjoy the ultimate – and mostly fairly cheap – outdoor food and drink experience. I’ll be back.

Great place to stay

https://www.nh-collection.com/de/hotel/nh-collection-berlin-mitte-friedrichstrasse

Great places to eat

http://www.restaurant-nolle.de/

https://www.burgeramt.com/

http://www.davinci-ristorante.de/

Bustling Bilbao

The Guggenheim Museum put Bilbao in the spotlights and on everyone’s radar or bucket list. Once a heavily industrialized city, it has transformed into a design city with a cosmopolitan attitude and a certain flair. Perhaps it lacks the sophistication and importance of a capital city but it slowly wins you over with its beautiful art, great atmosphere and the delicious food.

Bilbao is pretty compact so you can discover most of the city by foot. If you follow the curve of the Nervion river, you literally experience the transformation of this bustling city. The river takes you from the old town to the newly developed and cultural hotspot with the Guggenheim Museum as main attraction. It is quite stunning, I found it most beautiful when the evening sun gave the titanium a kind of golden colour.

Casco Viejothe old quarter’ is a lively neighbourhood on the right bank of the Nervion river with many bars and restaurants. Plaza Nueva, beautifully surrounded by arches, is the heart of the old town and a great place to try out the famous pintxos, bite-sized rounds of bread with delicious toppings and spiked with a toothpick. Locals do not stay in one bar all night but they perform the art of bar hopping, sampling pintxos and drinking local white or rosé whine, while they roam the streets and squares.

When the city buzz or heat is getting to you, you can take the subway up north and stroll along the breathtaking Basque coast. Plentzia beach is the last stop on the metro line but it is definitely worth to sit the full ride.  It is a quiet and sandy beach, located in a beautiful bay and has a wonderful promenade bordering it.

Great place to stay: 

www.caravan-cinema.com nicely decorated and comfortable rooms, friendly staff.

Great places to eat pintxos : 

www.mercadodelaribera.net

Great Pintxos:

www.irrintzi.es

www.victormontes.com

www.laolladelaplazanueva.es

Great meals:

www.restauranteathletic.es good food at a very reasonable price

Great seefood paella in Plentzia:

www.restaurantegorrondonaplentzia.com

 

 

Haiti

I have a link with Haiti. 21 years ago I spent a few weeks in the country, after being invited by Jan Hoet who has lived, and devoted much of his life, in support of the country and it’s people. I spent most of my time there in the capital city of Port-au-Prince but also went into the heart of the country, Mobin Crochu, which left me quite overwhelmed. Getting there first of all but also witnessing local living and working conditions was a total shock to a young, white, privileged woman at the age of 23. When I returned I wrote a thesis on the subject of US interventions towards Latin America, focusing mainly on Haiti. For quite some years now I have a foster son in Haiti, through Cunina, which is what I consider to be my small contribution to at least one young human being’s future. That is how connected we are, Haiti and me. At least that is what I thought.

Watching a program about Haiti on Belgian National Television recently made me realize I am still greatly touched by what is going on there, and more specifically what is not going on there. In the course of these 21 years the country has seen political turmoil, hurricanes and 2 earthquakes. Through all sorts of aid and relief programs, money was transferred to rebuild the devastated homes and infrastructure. Based on what I saw on television the country is still in the exact same dreary situation like it was 21 years ago. Buildings were constructed and went down again, similar to governments and economy.

People in Haiti are not worried about climate change or rising populism and couldn’t care less about international Women’s day. They want to survive and they dream about a better life, a better world is too far out of reach. They are not used to turning to either government or neighbours to solve their problems, they will try to fix things themselves. Only God and the lottery can be of useful assistance. They live in the moment – mindful as we would say – not caring about what comes the day after. Give them a dollar and they spend it.

People were constantly approaching me and touching my white skin when I was walking the streets of Port-au-Prince. They wanted money “Hé Blanc, give me one dollar” and by looking at them I could see they assumed I had plenty of it. Little did they know about my life and financial situation as a student but insignificant were my issues as a student compared to their everyday struggles. It made me feel uncomfortable, I felt threatened and misunderstood. I was not there to enjoy a cheap vacation, I was there to figure out and appreciate Haiti but they couldn’t be bothered about that. I was also appalled by the tons of dirt and litter I saw and stepped on throughout the entire city. But mostly it was the stomach-upsetting smell which was horrendous. I can still recall the smell and how if left me nauseous.

In the heartland there was a completely different vibe. But first we had to get there. We had to cover 150km to Mobin Crochu which took us 2 days. We started off on a paved road, heading all the way up to Cap-Haitiën in the North of the country. We drove along the beautiful coastline, with white sandy beaches and no-one on it. On our way we had to deal with holes in the tarmac, trees in the middle of the road, and car wrecks – or rather bus wrecks – blocking our way. I was wondering about the death toll on this road but didn’t pop the question for fear of knowing the answer. From Cap-Haitïen to Mobin Crochu was a bumpy off-road ride which did cause some uneasiness and bruises. We arrived in the tiny village featuring some houses, a school, a hospital and a church. The place looked desolate but peaceful. People were away working on the fields or selling whatever the fields gave back. Children were playing. The atmosphere was less hostile, probably because they were used to seeing strange Belgian people around. I talked with the locals, played volleyball, had a drink, bought some of their local ‘art’ and went to church. I saw people living a simple life, without too much hardship and more closely together.

Numerous blows and setbacks have forced the people in Haiti to adopt a survival mode and to focus on the short term. Despite heavy fund raising through numerous NGOs – no other country has more NGO organisations per capita as Haiti – there still is no infrastructure or solid democracy, despite heavy but not exactly altruistic promotion by the US government over the past decades. I ended my trip 21 years ago with a dinner on the shady terrace of the Grand Hotel Oloffson, a French Victorian-style hotel in the middle of Port-au-Prince but completely hidden away in a quite street. it was a magical place, like a sanctuary in the middle of complete and utter chaos. The hotel is famous as it was the inspiration for Graham Greene’s novel the Comedians. It is also a known place for journalists and writers to come together at the most critical times in Haitian history. I felt greatly inspired when I was there at the time and was glad to see that the hotel is still operational and reservations are welcome. Not on Booking.com though but hey, this is Haiti !

 

Ellen

My sister Ellen does not cease to amaze me. She is a semi-professional cyclo-cross rider, meaning that she is combining a top-level sports career with a job. She did not choose the easiest of sporting disciplines. Cyclo-cross is a combination of mountain biking and road racing. It’s quite an easy concept: for one hour – 50 minutes for the ladies – you need to ride around on a closed winding course moving the bike up the hills and through open fields, sandpits and mud. At some points you come across natural or other obstacles like staircases, ditches or wooden barriers forcing you to carry your bike on your back. It requires some riding techniques and bike handling skills. That’s it basically.

In reality a cyclo-cross race is brutally intense and spectacular, unfolding fast even though the average speed is low as tarmac sections are limited. As soon as the whistle blows all riders fiercely go in attack mode. It seems fairly chaotic and frantic to be honest. For the whole ride they will be fighting competitors, rain and cold and they hope to avoid mechanicals since their bikes are suffering from all this hardship. But mostly, at least to me, it seems to be a personal motivational battle because you do not have anyone but yourself to rely on. It really is an heroic battle watched by crowds of enthusiastic spectators, screaming and shouting their favorite riders onto the podium.

So this is what my sister does, for quite some time now, and she is pretty good at it. In fact she is the second best female rider in Belgium despite her not-so-young age. She is some strong lady, both physically as mentally. She has suffered from cold, pain and exhaustion but hardly ever complains about it. She has travelled several continents to line up for international races, backed by a professional team and a number of dedicated people supporting her in all she needs. The fact that she has a job to do besides racing and training is extraordinary. She claims she needs it to be able to shift her focus regularly. When she is not on her bike, she is taking care of disabled people. It brings her back to reality and helps her to put victories or defeats into perspective. She is greatly admired and respected for this and rightly so. Her dedication and positive attitude also makes her a great promotor for cyclo-cross in Europe and beyond. You can read all about her races through her website or the website of her team.

The picture above was taken after an epic race in Iowa last September. Racing conditions were extremely tough pushing the riders really to the limit. It shows the intensity and the physical impact after 50 minutes of racing.I am always glad to see her cross the finish line, ending the physical agony for her, preferably without any injuries. Mostly however, I am amazed how quickly she recovers and moves the focus to the next race which usually is not more than a day or just a few days away.

 

White Wagrain

There is no better way to escape the infinite sadness of Winter than to go skiing. The snow lightens up all darkness and you spend your days outside. No need to make sophisticated travel preparations or plans, you just pack your ski stuff and every morning you know you will be doing nothing but skiing, eating and drinking. Pure joy ! For the second year I stayed in Wagrain, Austria and enjoyed the Ski-amadé resort, a large network combining 28 ski areas and towns. The ski resort was named after the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

This year we were literally bombarded with snow. It’s so delightful to plough through it in the morning to get to the skilift, so different from your regular mornings when you just step in your car and drive to work.

By the way, did you know that Wagrain is the original home of Atomic Skis ?

 

Best of 2016 and Bucket list for 2017

Looking back at 2016 I dare say it has been a special year. I spent the whole of January on the couch after I had knee surgery, imperative after a silly ski accident. Pain killers and cold packs were my dear companions for weeks. For sure things could only get better after this ! So here is my best of list for 2016:

The greatest thing I bought was an espresso machine. I’m addicted to coffee so I consider this to be a vitally important object. Got rid of my piano as I will never be any good at playing the damned thing. The best music I heard on stage was Tame Impala at Werchter, a bunch of Australian weirdos producing instant feel-good music ! I was mostly, and most unexpectedly, charmed by Lake Garda in Italy, never been there before as I’m not very fond of mass tourism but it was truly a nice experience. My best move was to finally start writing and start preparing for a serious career switch. I mostly admired my sister, again, she is just amazing the way she rides her cyclocross bike each week. Best citytrip was Barcelona, where I spent most of the time on the beach or drinking cava without ending up financially ruined. Best fun was the skitrip in December with my dear friends which left me financially broke though and physically exhausted. Greatest loss to me was George Michael, my teenage hero, my pop idol. Best quote : ‘I’m nicer when I like my outfit’. Best lesson learned, from my 11-year old son : to be a good mother is to be a laughing mother. Okay… Mostly appalled by terrorist actions all over Europe, creating fear and uneasiness whenever you are surrounded by people.

Looking forward to 2017 with great expectations !

Hope to see Oasis reunited and play at some Belgian festival soon. Want to spend some time in Winchester, England in July to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen. Aspire to reread all here great classics by then. Want to go on  a city trip to Bilbao, Spain and Aarhus, Denmark. Want to watch the second series of The Crown on Netflix. Intend to have my house and garden fixed after all these years. Hope to realise this career switch and enjoy my job. Watch Delvis and Radiohead at Belgian Summer festivals. Get rid of the couch which is destroying my back with every minute I spend on it. Plan to get out more, visit places and exhibitions. Plan to invite more people…if I manage to get my house and garden fixed…Okay.

 

Majestic Merano

When you think Italy, you think Tuscany or Umbria, Venice or Rome, Amalfi Coast or the Great Lakes, Chianti or Parma. South Tirol will not immediately spring to mind, most likely because you are inclined to consider this to be Austria rather than Italy, by the looks of it.
Once this northern part of Italy belonged to the Austro-Hungarian county of Tyrol but at the end of the first World War, it was annexed by Italy. Despite numerous and harsh attempts to Italianize the region you still feel the Habsburg presence in everyday life: German names, cuisine, architecture, costumes… Locals feel Germanic and refer to fellow countrymen of the South as ‘those Italians’ as if they are talking about a different people. This can all get very confusing if you forget where you are.

Once you have managed to get passed innumerable German roadworks and the narrow mountain passes you arrive in sunny South Tirol. If, for some reason, you missed the landmark at the border you might not realise you changed countries. The only giveaway could be the temperature which is slowly going up on this sunny side of the Alps. While you are making your final descend towards Merano, most of the foreign number-plated cars will still have a few hundred miles to cover, as they are heading towards the more popular and more crowded regions in Italy.

Merano is a breathtaking ancient spa town, formerly known and famous for its healing waters and treatments. Surrounded and protected by mountains it has a mild microclimate where oleanders and exotic palm trees flourish, giving this enchanting town a real Mediterranean atmosphere although you are still closer to Vienna than to Rome. Strolling along the riverside promenade is fantastic, especially after a very hot day in summer when the breeze of the river Passirio cools you down. You can sit down on one of the many benches, facing the impressive Kurhaus and imagine yourself an Austrian royal.

Besides the old Kurhaus on the promenade, a new and modern city spa was built right in the middle of Merano. You enter the building, a steel and glass cube, from a central plaza stretching between the spa and the hotel. A magnificent oasis of peace and tranquility opens up to you once you pass the pay terminal. There is an extensive sauna area, tens of different massages or special treatments and 25 indoor and outdoor pools are waiting for you. The garden is a wonderful oasis where you can enjoy the spectacular scenery while floating in heated waters.

After such a day of complete inactivity you can slip into your walking shoes – you could actually also do this the other way around. The Tappeiner Promenade offers a splendid view of the spa city. Protected from the sun by a mixture of Alpine and Mediterranean vegetation and without any difference in altitude, it is suitable for all ages and levels. The promenade was named after Franz Tappeiner, a well known Austrian physician and anthropologist.

By the numerous food and wine events you can tell that Merano has a very rich culinary tradition with a lot of local products. With Forst brewery at the outskirts of the town and several local vineyards and wineries, you are never short of a good quality drink. On the menu you will find a mixture of reasonably priced Italian and Tyrolean dishes, preferably served in the open air. Another way to enjoy local fresh food is to visit the farmers’ markets every Saturday morning. Make sure you taste the lovely South Tyrolean cheese and speck

 

 

Bittersweet Barcelona

Barcelona is on everyone’s list of been-there’s or must-see’s. It’s no surprise. This is a tremendously diverse and bustling city where you need to go to without a plan and just hang around. Options are numerous, the atmosphere is great and so is the weather. There is only one downside: slowly this city is getting overwhelmed by tourists which is annoying many local residents. Also you need to prebook all the famous hotspots you want to visit if you don’t want to spend the whole day lining up. I decided to take my chances and went without a pre-fixed schedule.

Barcelona is Gaudí, there is no way to be or remain ignorant of this fact. When checking in at the hotel, the man at the reception gave me a city map with the Gaudí sites already marked as if that was the only purpose for my trip. Even if you are not into culture or architecture you will be amazed by his work, mostly by the creative and imaginative character of it. He designed buildings, sculptures and gardens in a modernist style, combining Catalan patriotic tradition with innovative technical solutions. The genius of Gaudí is mostly expressed by his masterpiece the Sagrada Familia. Even unfinished, this church – as technically speaking it is not a cathedral – is a stunning piece of work. Although somewhat spaceship-like and seemingly made of sand, you need to take your time and watch the tons of symbolism.

Casa Batlló ‘House of Bones’ is another one of Gaudí’s unique works. It is a fairytale building with lots of colours and a facade with skeletal shapes. Casa Milà was Gaudí’s last civil work in which he tried to recreate natural flows with bricks and mortar. It looks like a building creeping around a corner.

Both Casa Batlló and Casa Milà are situated on Passeig de Gràcia, a glamorous avenue in the city centre. Besides these famous houses and the many exclusive shops, you should definitely look up to spot the other stunning pieces of modernist architecture. The benches and lampposts are wonderful, they are called benches-lamps as they are actually one and the same artistic element.

According to National Geographic, Barcelona is the number one beach city, leaving Cape Town and Honolulu in second and third place. The white-sand beaches are close to the city centre and are easily accessible. On a hot day you can mix a city break with a sandy break and have a cool drink in one of the many beach bars and clubs. I did some serious beach bumming on Barceloneta beach, one of the oldest and most popular beaches, located in the traditional fishing district.

Although tapas are meant as small portions of food, served in between meals and to go with some wine or beer, restaurants will serve them all day as this is what most tourists expect. The best tapas are often served standing in a crowdy bar. It takes some courage not to feel intimidated and to go straight up to the bar and order your portion of tapas. Often they are displayed in glass cabinets so just pointing at what you want will also do. Whilst eating tapas you can sip a glass of cava or vermouth. On a sunny afternoon I ended up at La Champagneria Cava Bar. I nearly missed it as it is really tucked away in an anonymous side street. It is a great place to have a cheap overfilled glass of cava and a greasy pork sandwich. It’s not top-healthy stuff but it tastes good. Although very well known and busy it still has a magnificent authenticity. It is loud, messy but brilliant. To avoid people getting too drunk they have a rule that says you need to order food to go with your cava. Hilarious !

Maybe it’s because of the crowds but I was not so much enchanted by the Ramblas Promenade. It is the number one attraction in Barcelona, a pedestrian tree-lined boulevard cutting right through the heart of the city. Being too much of a tourist magnet for me I quickly left the main street for the Gothic Quarter. This is a lively district with small streets and nice squares, from the tiny Plaça del Pi to the Plaça Reial, a pretty arcaded square with palmtrees.

Barcelona is a city you will end up visiting more than once. At least that’s how it feels for me. Spending a few days here does not require a huge travel budget. I will be back and I will behave like a good tourist, spending my money on a nice hotel rather than renting a local flat or staying at some Airbnb, to make sure they still want me there. And perhaps next time I will make these reservations upfront to visit more of Gaudi’s work.

I visited Barcelona in September 2016.

I stayed at Catalonia Passeig de Garcia hotel, near Plaza de Catalunya