Friday, August 31, 2007

If Somehow You Haven't Seen This Yet

From the Onion, the best article of the year. They must have been saving this one for a long time.


Sunday, August 19, 2007


Last weekend, Sean and I went to Brussels. The week prior, we looked up the prices for the train online but went to the train station to purchase the tickets. There we got tickets for less than half what we were quoted online. It was a very nice surprise and we left feeling like we must have somehow gotten away with something.

The train (the Deutsche Bahn ICE) to Brussels was very nice. On the German side of the border, it was very fast, maybe 120 mph, and we reached the border in under an hour. On the Belgium side of the border, it was much slower, so in total it took 3 hours door-to-door, including switching trains in Köln. Though there was no stop at the border, the difference between Belgium and Germany was noticeable and not just from the differences in train station signage. Heading northwest from Bonn, the countryside changes from flat farmland to woods with pastures for cows. On the German side of the border, buildings are mostly plaster (over what I presume is brick) painted solid colors: white, gray, a light yellow, sometimes pink, etc. Crossing the border, the buildings feature rustic, exposed red brick.

In Brussels, the maps in our Lonely Planet guide were deficient and we constantly took the longest, most roundabout routes to places. We stayed in the middle of the city (inside the ring road) near the Grand Place with all cobblestone streets (which hurt my feet) and where all the other tourists stayed. Here are the highlights of Brussels according to me:


>> Hey, look over there; it's a giant iron crystal thingee.

  • Hmm, well, it looks kinda far and there's beer here.
>> I'm sorry, I didn't hear you, I was busy ordering beer.


Belgium is where many famous comic book/strip characters were created, such as the Smurfs and Tintin. Many buildings have cartoon murals on their sides. There are also many comics book shops in the city (you know what else there was a lot of? For rent signs. Odd, huh?).

Royal Palace

We went to the Royal Palace, which is free but only open during the summer. It was a strange mix of royal palace, art exhibit, science demos for kids, and Belgium science press releases. I really can't explain it.

Manneken Pis

This is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Brussels. It's also really small and unimpressive.

A Little Art

This is Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Fall of the Rebel Angels.

Grand Place

The Grand Place is the old central market square in Brussels. Around the Hotel de Ville (the last two pictures) are the guildhouses, most built around 1700 after the French tried to destroy the Hotel de Ville and got basically everything but.


We had mussels every day.

Sometimes this meant braving a gauntlet of restaurants and waiters trying to lure you in (we took the picture during the off-hours). (Also, at one restaurant, one of the waiters started beating up another waiter -- something you don't see everyday -- maybe Sean will provide the blow-by-blow in his blog.)

While the mussels were great, the frites were severely disappointing. So very sad. The little box of chocolates we bought, however, was excellent.


Did you hear? There's a lot of beer in Belgium. Sean worked on the Trappist beers, while I worked on the lambics. We liked this place below so much, we went twice.

This place had 2000 beers in their beer book.

While we were there, some people ordered this:

It's at least 5 L of beer.

Lambic beer is the real champagne of beer. Traditionally, it's produced by spontaneous fermentation (left exposed to the open air so that fermentation may occur spontaneously) and takes several years to mature. It's unique to one region of Belgium and has a distinctive sour flavor. Some varieties have fruit (such as cherries or raspberries) added to them. It's fantastic. I tried the gueuze (a mixture of different ages) and the raspberry from the Cantillon brewery (very traditional):

I also tried the Mort Subite Lambic Blanche, Framboise (raspberry), and Kriek (cherry) and the Lindeman Framboise. To round it out, I had some fruit beers (not lambics): apple, cherry, strawberry. I think. At the Cantillon brewery tour, they explained that the term lambic isn't protected, so any beer to claim to be a lambic, whether they use spontaneously fermentation, mature for several years and use real fruit not sweetners, or not. So which of these other "lambics" are the real deal? Well, the Mort Subite definitely had the sour flavor, while the Lindeman (while fantastic tasting, like a real raspberry down to the tart/bitter finish) wasn't sour at all. Sean and I both really like the brewery tour; if you find yourself in Brussels, it's totally worth a look.

On the ride back, we sat next to the empty operator's cab at the back of the train. It was separated from the cabin by a glass wall which would turn opaque when we approached a station. Weird.


Thursday, August 09, 2007


Two weeks ago, Sean and I went to Budapest, Hungary for the weekend. Hungary is a recent EU member, which means they don't use the Euro sadly, but everywhere you look there are Hungary and EU flags (I never see either in Bonn). The flight from Cologne was 1.5 hours and from the moment you step out of the airport, you can tell that you're in a whole different world. It's a lot poorer than Germany. The public buses were loud, small, grey, and old, and seemed very Soviet era (I wish I'd taken a picture). The buildings tended to look rather ramshackle. Yet, they were also a lot more ornate than in Germany. For example, here's a couple pictures of buildings we saw:

My understanding is that the language is very difficult to learn (it doesn't resemble any other European languages except maybe Finnish). Thankfully, everywhere we went, people spoke at least a little English.

Budapest is two cities -- Buda and Pest -- on opposite sides of the Danube River. Our hotel was on the Buda side (the left side of this photo), right on the river with an excellent view of the Parliament (the red dome on the right) and a few blocks from the Chain bridge (in the foreground). In the middle of the river, there's a huge park on Margaret Island, which you can also see in the photo below:

We arrived in the morning and spent the day on the Buda side, going up Castle Hill. There's a funicular railway that takes you up the hillside to the top, but, frankly, it's not much of a walk. At the top of the hill is a whole neighborhood, ringed by medieval walls and containing Buda Castle (now containing the National Art Gallery, a history museum, some pretty grounds and excavations of older buildings), Mattias Church, and Fisherman's Bastion. You can see Buda Castle as the dome in the background of this photo:

We spent the afternoon in the National Gallery (which has free admission to the permanent exhibits but, oddly enough, they insist you stand in line to buy the free ticket). On the other side of the hill is Mattias Church (informally named after the greatest Hungarian king) covered in scaffolding in the picture below, with Fisherman's Bastion in front of it and the Hilton next to it:

Inside, I got the first taste of how different culturally and historically Hungary is compared to, say, Germany. Everything is decorated.

Inside the Church is St. Stephan Chapel, dedicated to the first king of Hungary (crowned in the year 1000, and canonized after his death) with a replica of the crown of St. Stephan (used to crown the kings of Hungary from the 13th century). The real crown is in the Parliament (which we never got to). His mummified right hand can be found in St. Stephen's Basilica (which I'll get to later). The text around the replica of the crown of St. Stephan tries to very carefully prove that the real crown can be dated back to St. Stephan and somehow divines that it was originally crafted on the shores of the Black Sea in the 3rd century. Outside the church is Fisherman's Bastion; it's pretty cool to look at.

We were exhausted by the end of the afternoon. Luckily, a quick dinner could be had on the Chain Bridge, shut to cars for the weekend, it was lined with stands for food and trinkets, with stages for music on either end, and tourists everywhere. Here's a picture of it all lit up.

On the second day, we went to Pest to the Jewish quarter and saw Dohány Street Synagogue, the second largest synagogue in the world. By the way, if you're looking for a bathroom in Budapest, you don't need to pay to use the bathroom in the synagogue (it's before the ticket-takers). Also, the Inter-continental Hotel near the Chain Bridge (on the Pest side) has a side door right next to its lobby bathrooms.

The inside was pretty amazing, but you need to buy a separate ticket to take pictures; there's a bunch on the Wikipedia page I linked above. After lunch, we went to St. Stephan's Basilica; the most ornate building in the world (okay, maybe not officially ...).

After a good look around and at St. Stephan's mummified hand, we went to the roof (not the to top of the dome but very high). That's where the fourth photo in this post was taken. After this, we walked along the river, past the Parliament to Margaret Island and relaxed for the rest of the day. A quick dinner in front of the Basilica was capped off with one of these tubes of grilled sweet bread (-like thing) coated in caramelized vanilla sugar bought from a stand on the Chain bridge. We ate it standing by one of the stages which featured some rather good music (I'm blanking on what kind of music it was (jazz?) and only remember that I liked it).

The last day was cold and rainy (it was hot the previous two days). We wandered up Andrássy út to City Park and went to the thermal baths there, Széchenyi Medicinal Bath. Budapest is known for it's thermal baths and we could have spent several more days just exploring all of them. After going through a rather complex procedure for paying, getting a locker, changing, and getting towels, we relaxed in their many outdoor thermal baths and indoor herbal baths. It was fantastic, especially after two and 1/2 days of nothing but walking. After a few hours of soaking, we got some afternoon cake (there's a lot of really good afternoon cake in Budapest) and wandered down Váci utca, the main touristy, pedestrian street, stumbled upon a great deal (and good food) for dinner and called it a day.

All in all, Budapest was pretty awesome. I definitely could have used several more days just to get to all the places I wanted to see and two or three history books to figure out what it was I saw.


Thursday, August 02, 2007

New Apartment

I've changed apartments. My old apartment was a shoebox with wireless on a quiet and pretty street near the Zentrum and a block from the train tracks. My new apartment is a modest but respectable studio in Poppelsdorf. I've also got DSL up and running, although I've given up on TV (so no more blogging of the Eurovision Song Contest). The tenant the floor below and I share a washer, which is nice, but there's no dryer, so I'm not sure what I'm going to do come winter.

It's behind a perfume shop and has a small garden where one of the residents (my landlord's brother, I think) keeps and tends to birds and a koi pond. I've even seen chickens in the garden, although I don't know where he keeps them otherwise (there doesn't seem to be room).

The neighborhood is really nice, full of shops and restaurants with seating outside on the sidewalk (I don't have a photo, unfortunately, but I found the website for the restaurant 2 doors down and maybe you can extrapolate). I'm a few blocks from Poppelsdorfer Schloss and Allee.

A few random notes: I'll have pictures of my trip to Budapest up soon, I promise, and Sean's been blogging his travels in Germany using many of the same pictures (he took all of them) but better organized and with clearer text. Go take a look and leave a comment (he's lonely!).


Wednesday, August 01, 2007


Two weeks ago, Sean and I went to Heidelberg. While I spent days in session at a conference, Sean wandered around the city and took lots of good pictures for me to blog with.

Heidelberg is a cute little city on the Neckar River, a 2 and 1/2 hour train ride south from Bonn. It's also one of the biggest tourist attractions in Germany. On the right side of the pedestrian bridge, there's a the Philosophenweg, a narrow path that winds it way up the hill: very cute.

On the left side of the bridge, the old city is full shops, restaurants, and beer. The main street, Hauptgasse, is a pedestrian walkway. A block from our hotel (loud at night with people on the street and cars roaring up the narrow street, but quiet during the day), we went to a place that brewed their own beer (one was 33% alcohol) and I had a weissbierbowle (beer, champagne, and strawberries); I don't care what people said, it was quite yummy.

Above the city is Heidelberg castle.

It was pretty cool, a mix of different periods and all rather ruin-y.

You could go down and walk through the moat, which was pretty cool.

And one of the towers was split in two with half sunk on it's side.