Thursday, June 28, 2007

Paris and the Low Countries

APRIL 16 – 26, 1998

16 APRIL (Thursday):

My third trip to France began with a mad dash to an earlier-than-anticipated flight from Los Angeles to Houston. The ticket agent booked me on an earlier flight, as my scheduled departure later in the morning was to be delayed. I rushed to the gate, happy that I would not miss my connection in Houston. Unfortunately, as one of the last people to board the Continental Airlines flight, there wasn’t enough storage to hold even my single carry-on item. A tad panic-stricken, I removed my camera and film, but left all my other valuables in the suitcase. I spent the remainder of my journey to Houston, and from there to Paris, hoping my luggage would make it to Paris with me.

17 APRIL (Friday):

Our pilot made a fine and smooth landing as rain came down at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris. The passengers sent up a round of applause, which disappeared in short order as the plane stopped with a thud within sight of our gate. A few minutes later, the pilot announced that the plane’s right wheel had got stuck in the grass and mud adjacent to the runway during our turn toward the gate. We waited some forty minutes before a ramp and buses arrived to allow us to deplane and get shuttled to the gate. Following the passport control procedures, we were told that extricating the plane from the mud would take priority over our baggage. Therefore, we were asked to leave our hotel information with airline representatives for delivery of our luggage; otherwise, it would be some six hours, at the earliest, before the luggage would be removed.

I took the RER train into Paris and, about forty minutes later, emerged from a Metro station into the pouring April rain. My lodgings at Hotel Marignan, in the heart of the Latin Quarter, were a soggy dash up a couple of streets. I checked into the hotel with help of American-born owner, Linda Keniger, who bore a strong resemblance to actress Mary Steenburgen. I felt enormous relief to be so close to a comfy bed. The spiral staircase took me to one of the upper floors. I was quite dispirited to discover that my itty-bitty single room had no carpeting – it was just gonna be cold linoleum underfoot for two nights – and exactly zero character. It had to be the “runt” of the litter. Later, after a brief foray into the neighborhood to purchase an umbrella and get a sandwich at Chez Kosta, my favorite sandwich shop in the city, I discovered the additional fact that my room faced a courtyard adjacent to a generator. The odd hissing and humming of the object would contribute to the miserable lack of sleep I got that long, long first night.

Oh, and the luggage never did make it to the hotel that day.

18 APRIL (Saturday):

After a long, sleepless night, I had the added displeasure of showering in the shared bath shower, an over-large room which functioned as who-knows-what in some past incarnation of the building.

Dressed in the same clothes I’d been wearing since I left L.A. on Thursday, I ventured down to the breakfast room, a cozy nook with a few tables. There was some confusion on my part with how one actually got breakfast: I took a plate and grabbed some cereal, and then poured myself some juice. Shortly after I seated myself, Linda approached me and, looking at me quizzically, asked, “Can’t you follow the rules of this hotel?” It seems that I’d neglected to follow some intricate dining room etiquette (printed on the long list of rules posted on a wall by the reception desk) by taking my own juice and not waiting for the buffet-iste to supply me with a glass and pour me the juice. I…have very little memory of how I responded, other than silently wishing she’d turn to a block of stone.

But all was not lost, as I struck up a pleasant conversation with an Australian couple while waiting for my luggage to arrive. And, lo and behold, it did arrive as I finished eating.

I’d initially planned a day trip out to Rouen (which I’d wanted to visit ever since seeing Claude Monet’s Impressionist series featuring that city’s cathedral), but awaiting the arrival of my luggage ate up most of my morning. So I happily took a long walk through the city, moving from the Left Bank (Latin Quarter) and the Right (the Marais), before arriving at the Louvre for a few quality hours of art appreciation.

19 APRIL (Sunday):

Good riddance, Hotel Marignan!

Catching the Metro to the Gare du Nord, I hopped aboard the TGV (high-speed train) to Brussels; there, I’d change to a local train for my ultimate distination: Bruges. There’s this sudden surge of power that pins you to your seat for the briefest moment when the train accelerates to well-above 100 mph outside the Paris suburbs. The change of trains in Brussels is effortless and very short (as well as punctual). I was on a Bruges-bound local train within minutes of arriving in the Belgian capital.

The railway station in Bruges (“Brugge” in Flemish) is small and the immediate surroundings are fairly bucolic. I fell more and more in love with the town with each echoed rattle of my roller-bag against the cobblestone-paved streets leading to the center of town.

The Hotel Cavalier, just north of Markt Square, couldn’t have been more different than the Hotel Marignan: while both were located in historic buildings, the Cavalier was light and airy and quiet dripped with charm. I was greeted by owner Viviane de Klerck and led to my charming $60-per-night room (ah, the pre-Euro days!) with big double beds, television, and full bath. An additional comfort was the view out over the neighboring rooftops.

I really wanted to dive right in to sightseeing, so I grabbed a couple of delicious apple-and-powdered-sugar beignets (fried doughnuts) from a street vendor. As if that wasn’t enough sugar, dessert consisted of some cognac-flavored chocolates from a nearby shop.

Climbed the 366 steps of the Markt Square’s historic Belfry (built in stages between the 13th and 14th centuries). It was such a long climb that, having started in relative sunshine, I emerged at the viewing platform to discover that it had become gray and overcast. While the skies were muted, one thing was crystal clear: the music from the carillon when when the carilloneur set to them while I held my hands over my ears. (Not that the music was lovely – just very, very loud.)

After a long and rewarding walk through town, including a stop at two historic windmills out near the town’s eastern gates, I had dinner at a creperie, L’Estaminet, and dined on a chocolate dessert crepe in the smoky restaurant. The waiter, like most Bruggians I had encountered, spoke virtually flawless English.

That evening at the hotel, I enjoyed several ridiculous German television programs, including one in which a group of women were evidently required to behave like penguins; following their performance, a group of fresh-faced young men came out and danced to some Europop music.

20 APRIL. Monday.

My hotel rate included breakfast, which was delicious and served in the dining room adjacent to the front desk. The view out the window was to the rear of the city theater.

Walked through the charming streets of the old town, noting the preponderance of brick in the Flemish architecture.

Lunch was at a creperie (crepes are such perfect on-the-go meals) called De Bretoen Pannekoeken (the Flemish word for crepes), where I had a delicious banana crepe with ice cream, washed down with a nice mug of cider.

Next up: a terrific canal boat ride through the clean and charming canals of Bruges. As I’d discover, these canals were much cleaner and better maintained than those of Amsterdam.

A highlight of Bruges is the Madonna and Child, by Michelangelo, in the Church of Our Lady.

21 APRIL. Tuesday.

Goodbye, peaceful Bruges, hello, hectic Amsterdam!

Centraal Station is an orchestra of cacaphony: people from every walk of Dutch life arriving, departing, or just standing (or sitting) around. I immediately headed to the ticket office to reserve my return ticket to Paris, scheduled for later in the week. Lucky I did, as many of the seats were sold out. I had to roll my eyes when the clerk informed me that the only second-class seating available was in the smoking section of one train:

“But it’s not that long a trip.”

Ah, spoken like a true smoker. Because a five hour journey in a smoking compartment? Is a long, long time for a non-smoker.

I took an immediate dislike to Amsterdam, which, by day, offers the pedestrian an endless gauntlet of hazards to avoid: other pedestrians, trams, cars, buses, and, worst of all, the kamikaze bicyclists who comprise a very large part of Amsterdam commuters.

Hotel Aspen is on busy Raadhuisstraat. My room was very small, but perfectly comfortable. I had a view over the street, although the building directly across from the hotel was hidden behind unattractive green scaffolding.

Quickly unpacked, I walked over to ugly Dam Square, then fanned out from there, skirting the Red Light District and other parts of old Amsterdam.

I took a tram to the Rijksmuseum, Holland’s premiere showcase for Dutch painting. For whatever reason, I found myself mostly unimpressed. Maybe I’ve developed an appreciation for the colorful fervor of the religious art that permeates French and Italian museums.

I had dinner at a place called De Vliegende Schotel (“The Flying Dish”).
I walked down to the nearby Westerkerk to view the Homomonument, which honors the memory of the gay and lesbian victims of the Holocaust.

Continuing down the street just past the Anne Frank House, I discovered that its summer hours (until 9 pm) had recently started, so I went in. Very moving. I was the only person in the museum initially. A few kids came in, though, and spoiled the mood with their loud talking.

Wandered over to Gary’s Muffins, a great place to get light snacks and drinks.

Finished the evening with a jaunt up seedy Damrak to Drake’s, the Amsterdam branch of the gay adult bookstore chain.

22 APRIL. Wednesday.

Grabbed breakfast at Gary’s Muffins before heading for the train station and my first Dutch day trip.

Took the train south through beautiful tulip fields to Leiden, the hometown of Rembrandt.

Leiden is a pleasant town, ultimately the only Dutch city I really liked. I began with a tour of the De Valk windmill. Very interesting and informative with a nice view of town below the blades of the mill.

Nearby, an old castle offers a nice view of the Leiden rooftops.

After walking through the older parts of town, I took a shuttle bus out to the enormous Keukenhof Gardens, filled with tulips in fresh bloom. All manner of other colorful flowers were in bloom, too, such as daffodils. Spent a delightful afternoon in these breathtaking gardens before catching a bus back to town and the train back to Amsterdam.

Had dinner and went to the theater to see “The Full Monty.” Not only did I enjoy the film, but the ticket salesman was cute and friendly.

23 APRIL. Thursday.

I caught a train south to Delft for another day trip – or half-day trip, in this case. The town has some minor charms; I most enjoyed lunch at a place called Staadskoffiehuis, dining on a delicious cheese sandwich.

Delft’s charms were quickly exhausted, and so I hopped aboard a train heading west to Haarlem. Budget travel guru Rick Steves raves about this city, but left unimpressed. The main square was packed with food stands, music bandstands, etc., for a fair of some sort. Lots of bratty teenagers mulling around to spoil the atmosphere further. The Franz Hals museum, fortunately, was a quiet escape.

Returned to Amsterdam late in the afternoon and had a nice dinner at a place called Sisters.

Detouring down the street to a nearby canal, where canal boats begin their canal and harbor tours. I enjoyed seeing the city from the water (no bicycles or trams whizzing about), but it was no Bruges. That said, Amsterdam was much prettier from the water than the street, I found.

Finished the day with snacks at Gary’s Muffins.

24 APRIL. Friday.

Another good start to the day at Gary’s Muffins. (Hey, I see I was there a lot, wasn’t I?)

One of the highlights of the entire week was visiting the Rijksmuseum Van Gogh. The works of art are well-exhibited and the feeling I got was one of intense emotion and awe at his talent. Far more impressive than the Rijksmuseum.

I ventured back out into the fresh spring air for a walk through Amsterdam’s city park, called Vondelpark.

Had a light lunch at nearby Teehuis de Roos, where I had a sandwich.

Vrojlik bookstore, near my hotel, was a nice gay and lesbian oriented bookshop.

With the afternoon ahead of me, and the Netherlands such a small place connected by reliable trains, I headed out to Utrecht.

Getting to the older part of town from the railway station is quite challenging. I took an instant dislike to the place, particularly with the inescapable odor of french fries and mayonnaise, the favorite Dutch junk food.

The one positive aspect to the visit was a guided tour of the Dom Tower, led by a multi-lingual gentlemen who kindly led me ahead of the group with him to explain what we were going to see, as I was the only English-speaking member of the group.

Returning to Amsterdam, the train stopped at a town; the windows were down, and, in the distance, the sheep at a trackside farm were baahing.

For a lovely last-night-in-Amsterdam meal, I ate at Saturnino, an Italian restaurant. The cute host was very friendly.

25 APRIL. Saturday.

One last morning in Amsterdam. Breakfast once again at Gary’s Muffins, followed by a walk through the city’s Begijnhof, the courtyard of which is quiet and peaceful and surrounded by handsome architecture.

Toured the Westerkerk tower with a panoramic view of the city. As often happens with me and towers, the day was gray and drizzly.

Took the fast train to Paris, sitting in front of a handsome man named Marco, who, it turned out, was a doorman at an Amsterdam gay bar.

Got into Paris in the late afternoon and checked into the wonderful Hotel Castex. I loved my little room, #7.

I ventured out to stroll around Paris, walking along Pont Neuf and the quais along the Seine.

Finished up the evening in a very American style: a shake from McDonald’s.

26 APRIL. Sunday.

It was very difficult to leave Paris this morning. I sat in the hotel room, sulking on the bed, dreading having to leave. Holland was something of a disappointment, but Paris is always spectacular.